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Modern Greek has σκύλος for "dog," which is derived from ancient σκυλαξ, meaning "puppy." The generic word for a dog in ancient Greek was κυων. There is also a diminutive κυνάριον, which is of special interest because it occurs in a passage of the gospels of Mark and Matthew that is important in understanding the possible attitude of the historical Jesus towards the gentiles:

Mark 7:27 καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτῇ Ἄφες πρῶτον χορτασθῆναι τὰ τέκνα· οὐ γάρ ἐστιν καλόν λαβεῖν τὸν ἄρτον τῶν τέκνων καὶ τοῖς κυναρίοις βαλεῖν.

28 ἡ δὲ ἀπεκρίθη καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ Ναί, Κύριε· καὶ τὰ κυνάρια ὑποκάτω τῆς τραπέζης ἐσθίουσιν ἀπὸ τῶν ψιχίων τῶν παιδίων.

WEB translation:

24 From there he arose and went away into the borders of Tyre and Sidon. He entered into a house and didn't want anyone to know it, but he couldn't escape notice. 25 For a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit, having heard of him, came and fell down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by race. She begged him that he would cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 But Jesus said to her, "Let the children be filled first, for it is not appropriate to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." 28 But she answered him, "Yes, Lord. Yet even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." 29 He said to her, "For this saying, go your way. The demon has gone out of your daughter." 30 She went away to her house, and found the child having been laid on the bed, with the demon gone out.

English translations such as the WEB seem to render this simply as "dogs," which clearly misses some further nuance, since Matthew uses the non-diminutive κυων in the sermon on the mount. My guess would be that Jesus simply means the kind of small dog that would be allowed inside a house where it could try to get human food. However, I've also seen it suggested that this is meant to mean a puppy, or that it somehow softens the harsh ethnic slur. (Matthew's version of Mark 7:27 makes it explicit that Jesus means this as a derogatory reference to gentiles.)

From contemporary English, we know that these animal labels for humans have connotations that depend completely on detailed knowledge of the cultural context. In current US English, if Jesus referred to a woman or her child as a "b----," it would mean something very specific. People without knowledge of our culture might misunderstand, e.g., they might say, "21st century Americans loved dogs and referred to them as man's best friends. Clearly calling a woman a b---- must have been a term of endearment." (Similarly, Jesus refers to Herod Antipas as a "fox," which isn't the same thing as what current USians mean by calling a woman a "fox.")

Is there any reliable information on what was meant in this time and place if a Koine speaker applied the term κυνάριον to an adult woman or her female child? And putting aside for the moment the question of applying the labels to humans, did σκύλος exist as the normal term for a puppy, or was it a koine word for an adult dog? And did koine κυνάριον in this period mean a small dog, a dog kept as a house pet, a puppy, or more than one of these?

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  • Jesus would never say anything derogatory!
    – Ana Maria
    Feb 27 at 3:27
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The following was what I was able to come up with as a self-answer, by combing through various sources to learn about cultural attitudes about dogs and the connotations of the words referring to them, when applied to female humans. If others have better knowledge of this, I would love to see what they have to say.

The tanakh’s references to dogs are uniformly negative. They are scavengers, dangerous, and ritually unclean. For examples, see Exodus 22:31, Deuteronomy 23:19, 1 Kings 14:11, and Psalms 22:16. This attitude does not seem to have changed until long after the time of Jesus. In the mishnah and mystical traditions, dogs are treated as a threat and as a metaphor for demons.

Gentiles had more positive attitudes about dogs. For example, Marcus Aurelius (Meditations 6.16.3) approvingly describes:

...the vineyard worker, the colt breaker, and the dog trainer ...

But in Hellenistic culture, describing a person as a dog was a different matter. When a woman was uppity or unchaste, she was traditionally described in ancient Greek culture as being a dog. For example, in Odyssey 18.338, the promiscuous Melantho scolds Odysseus, who replies by calling her a dog and threatening dismemberment.

The diminutive κυνάριον is AFAICT the only koine word available for either a small dog or a puppy. It's possible that σκύλαξ and σκύλος existed in this period, but I haven't come across any such usages. LSJ has the following for σκύλαξ, which seems to be pointing to ancient sources like Homer and Hesiod, although I haven't taken the time to decode the other abbreviations or track down the sources that they refer to.

young dog, puppy, Od. 9.289, 12.86, Hes. Th. 834; κύων ἀμαλῇσι περὶ σκυλάκεσσι βεβῶσα Od. 20.14; in full, σ. κυνός Hdt. 3.32: generally, dog, masc. in Pl. R. 375a, 537a; fem. in Sophr. in Stud.Ital. 10.123, E. Ba. 338, Pl. Prm. 128c, X. Cyn. 7.6; ᾅδου τρίκρανος σ., of Cerberus, S. Tr. 1098.

Re κυνάριον:--

Cyropaedia 8.4.20 -- "In the first place," he answered, "she must be short, for you are not tall yourself, and if you married a tall maiden and wanted to give her a kiss when she stood up straight, you would have to jump to reach her like a little dog."

But in Euthydemus 298d the same word seems to be referring to puppies.

In the new testament, “dog” is always an ethnic slur against the gentiles (Matthew 7:6, Philippians 3:2, Matthew 15:22).

Given the dual overlays of Jewish and Hellenistic culture, the implication for Matthew and Mark’s Greek-speaking readers is probably not that Jesus likes puppies but rather a brutal slur, something like “the dirty little gentile b––––es.” The gentile woman is transgressing by bringing her uncleanliness into a Jewish household, where Jesus has been hiding, as well as by verbally accosting him. In the subsequent exchange, she cleverly turns the slur to her sick daughter's benefit and becomes the only person in the gospels ever to beat Jesus in an oral argument.

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  • "dog" has also been an ethnic slur against Christians in several Islamic cultures (like the Ottoman empire): impure pork eaters. I did not quite figure how σκύλαξ is meant to feature in all this, but in AG it had the connotation of bothersome and unappealing. Beekes points out it has no certain cognate outside Greek, whence "In view of the lack of an etymology, the word could well be Pre-Greek". Jun 5 at 22:08

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