Bird Dogs & Training  |  10/19/2020

What's in a Name?

Story by Tom Davis                                                                                                 Photos by Chad Love
Most of you are familiar, at least in passing, with the story “The Princess and the Pea.” A girl who shows up at a prince’s castle claiming to be a princess is put to bed atop a towering pile of feather mattresses, beneath which rests a single pea. The pea has been put there as a test: If the girl is in fact of royal blood, she’ll feel the pea, toss and turn, and get no sleep. But if she isn’t who she says she is — if she’s a “commoner,” in other words — she’ll not feel the pea and sleep like a baby.
Come daybreak, the girl complains that she didn’t sleep a wink. It seems a boulder was pressing into her back all night long and she’s got a whopper of a bruise to prove it. The prince rejoices: He’s been looking for his princess for a long time. They wed and live happily ever after.

Well, maybe. Its dubious assumption regarding the enhanced sensibilities of the privileged aside, “The Princess and the Pea” has something profoundly insightful to say about human nature and the way the tiniest, most inconsequential things stick in our craws, become burrs in our saddles. How many marriages have split like kindling against the wedge of a clumsily squeezed tube of toothpaste?

The bottom line is that we all have something that irritates us out of all proportion to the dimensions of the offense…and what brings out the princess in me is the use of the term “English pointer.”

I realize it’s silly and irrational, even childish, to get so exercised about it; I know I should just go Zen and try to imagine the sounds of lapping waves and laughing seagulls.  But whenever I see “English pointer” in print — and in the publications I read it occurs with bewildering and despairing frequency — I want to scream There’s no such animal!
And, if there’s no one around, I quite often do — scream aloud, I mean. The name of the magnificently proportioned, impressively chiseled, classically handsome sporting breed being referred to by this misnomer is pointer, period. That’s P-O-I-N-T-E-R.
Always has been and, presumably, always will be.
Let me put it this way: Since the major organizations for the registration of purebred dogs were established in the 1870s and ‘80s — the Field Dog Stud Book and the American Kennel Club in the United States, The Kennel Club in the U.K. — many thousands of dogs have been registered as pointers. The number of dogs registered as English pointers? Exactly zero.
Along these same lines, if you scan the list of AKC-recognized breeds you will find the English cocker spaniel, the English foxhound, the English setter, the English springer spaniel, and the English toy spaniel. You will also find the Old English sheepdog and the American English coonhound.
What you will not find — conspicuous by its absence, as they say — is the English pointer.

Now, there’s no such breed as the Brittany spaniel, either, and yet you still see that term bandied about. But there used to be — the spaniel designation was dropped circa 1980 — so when I see the misnomer “Brittany spaniel” in print instead of “Brittany,” which is the correct name, I’m inclined to acknowledge the influence of history and give the writer a pass.
No historical confusion surrounds the pointer. Its name has never changed; it was never one thing and became another.
All of the great sporting dog authorities of the 20th century are represented on my bookshelf — A.F. Hochwalt, Horace Lytle, Henry P. Davis, Nash Buckingham, William F. Brown, William Harnden Foster, the hallowed roll goes on — and in none of their titles does the term “English pointer” appear.
If you’d used the term in their presence they would have assumed you were referring to a pointer of specifically English provenance (that is, a pointer bred in England), not to the breed as a whole.
All of which begs the question: When and why did this misbegotten locution enter the lexicon in the first place?
The best explanation seems to be that it began cropping up in the 1960s as a way to help neophyte pheasant hunters, mostly in the Midwest but also in states like Pennsylvania and New York, differentiate between the pointer and the German shorthair. The GSP had become wildly popular among this demographic, and because many were first-time gundog owners whose knowledge was, shall we say, limited, adding the qualifier “English” helped them to keep everything straight.
My guess is that it happened like this: The guys who knew what the hell they were talking about got tired of having to explain the difference to the guys who didn’t — i.e., the guys who thought that “pointer” was short for “German shorthaired pointer” — and after a while they just gave up and began using “English pointer” in order to cut through all the crap and hurry the conversation along.
Ironically, the greatest pointer man of all, Robert G. Wehle of Elhew Kennels fame, helped to legitimize the term when he used it in his classic treatise Wing & Shot. In a discussion of the breeds he considered suitable for upland bird hunting — a very short list, in 1964 — he referred to the pointer as “the so-called English pointer.”

I’m certain he did this for the sake of clarification; Wehle lived in upstate New York, which was good pheasant country then and where German shorthairs were catching on in a big way.
If he’d lived in, say, Tennessee or Texas — pretty much any place south of the Mason-Dixon line — adding “English” to the name would never have occurred to him. It would still never occur to any self-respecting dog man from that part of the world. To use the term “English pointer” anywhere in the American South or Southwest is to expose yourself as either a Yankee carpetbagger or a rube of the highest order — maybe some of both.
In any event, and for whatever reason, “English pointer” continued to gain traction and now appears to be with us to stay, kind of the way words like “irregardless” and “co-conspirator” seem to be. This begs another question: Why do editors, who are supposed to know about these things, tolerate and therefore tacitly approve of it? One of the things those blue pencils are for, after all, is to strike out inaccuracies.
I have my own theories about this but, in the interest of finding an occasional check in my mailbox, I’m keeping them to myself.
In the meantime, I guess I’m just resigned to the fact that every so often I’m going to open a magazine, see this breed I admire the hell out of referred to by a name that affects me like squeaky chalk, and feel my inner princess kicking down the door.

Enjoy this story? This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you'd like to read more content like this, and join the only organization devoted to all things quail and quail hunting, become a QF member today!