One of the most interesting etymological twist in the dog world is the story of how the bloodhound got its name.
In the nineteenth century bloodhounds were depicted in literature as the ferocious man-trailers who savaged slaves as they tried to escape captivity. In reality, the writers of that day were writing about an entirely different sort of bloodhound, one that had developed in the tropical parts of America by crossing the Spanish hound with some kind of mastiff. The most famous of these dogs was the Cuban bloodhound.
The common perception was that the bloodhound of Europe was the same breed and that it got this name from its bloodthirsty nature.
The nineteenth century bloodhound fancy responded to this problem with another etymological canard. This one still survives today, and I believe I have heard it announced when the bloodhound is shown at the Westminster Kennel Club show.
This line goes something like this: Bloodhounds were owned by the nobility, and they were “blooded.” At one time, very well-bred horses that were owned by the nobility were called “blood horses,” so it had to have been that the bloodhound got its name from that same source.
That explanation has always bothered me.
Now, I am not much into scent hounds, so I never actually looked into all of this history.
But it turns out that my skepticism about that story was well- founded.
I had read that the original bloodhounds were called “limers.” The dogs were used to follow the blood trails of deer and boars that were wounded by the hunter’s arrows. They did not freely trail these wounded animals. Instead, they were kept on a leash, which was called a “lyam” in Middle English, and that is how the dogs got the name “limer.”
The reason why these dogs were kept on a leash is to keep the dogs from running a wounded deer or boar. When wounded, a deer can keep running for great distance, even when it is mortally wounded. That’s why deer hunters wait for a while after shooting a deer that doesn’t fall where it was shot. If one starts putting pressure on wounded deer, it will keep running, and it may never be founded.
Now, I thought that might be a better reason to call the dogs bloodhounds, but I had no real authority on the matter. I let my mind worry about other things.
I had read this book many years ago. It was originally written in French, and although it says it is about hunting dogs from around the world, it really is only about gun dogs and scent hounds from Europe and North America. There was a section I remember quite distinctly. In fact, it was the place where I learned about the existence of modern day “limers.” Two German scent hounds, which we call the Hanoverian Schweisshund and the Bavarian Schweisshund, were called “bloodhounds” in the English translation. When I read how the German hunters and foresters used these dogs, it sounded a lot like the way the ancestral bloodhounds where used. The animals followed blood spoor from wounded animals while on lead.
As I was digging through W.E. Mason’s Dogs of All Nations (1915), I came across a Hanovrian limer (which sounds like the Hanoverian Schweisshund, except for color) and the Bavarian limer (which looks and sounds almost exactly like the modern Bavarian Schweisshund.) I noted that the dogs were called “limers’– exactly the same term that was used for the ancestral bloodhounds.
It seemed to me that the task of the limer hound was more compatible with the etymology of the bloodhound’s name.
But it turns out that I did not have to look into it from those angles.
The bloodhound fanciers had also started to question this strange story behind its name. After all, nobles kept spaniels, greyhounds, and lighter scent hounds in the Middle Ages. Why were was it that only the heavy scent hounds that were called “bloodhounds”?
It turns out that John Caius, who wrote Of Englisshe Dogges the late sixteenth century, believed that the bloodhound got its name from its utility as a limer.
Further, the term bloodhound is older than the colloquialism of calling a noble’s horse a “blood horse,” so it must be that the use of limers to track wounded animals is the origin of the term.