The Meaning of Corgi

The generally accepted view is that the name is made up from cor (dwarf) and ci (dog), the ci becoming gi by normal mutation, thus Corgi, but according to Clifford L.B. Hubbard the better interpretation is that of cur dog or Cur which he traced back to some of the earliest of dictionaries, Wyllam Salesbury's A Dictionary in Englyshe and Welshe (London 1574), where there is a reference to the Korgi ne gostoc, meaning "Corgi or curre dogge". (At that time the use of the letter K rather than C was perfectly proper).

Drawing of a Corgi from 1650

Hubbard decided to investigate the history of the word Corgi while he still lived at Ponterwyd which is only 12.5 miles (20 km) from Aberystwyth where both the National Library of Wales and the Dictionary Department of the Board of Celtic Studies are found. By going through hundreds of books, newspapers and periodicals, manuscripts etc., he found several very early references to Corgwn, which by the way is the correct plural of Corgi, not Corgwyn, Corgis or Corgies. However, Corgis, when referring to several, is now the generally adopted form rather than the correct plural which is pronounced as if it were written Corg'n or how you would pronounce the word oxen as plural of ox.

Among the many references Hubbard came across was an M.A. thesis from 1925 about the works of Gryffudd Hiraethog, one of the foremost Welsh poets of the sixteenth century, which included a notice of the striking bark of the Corgi dogs: Cyweirgyrn ynt y corgwn (that is "These dogs are as tuning-keys for the harp"). But what exactly does this mean? That the Corgi's bark can be used as tuning fork for the harp or rather that the Corgis are as indespensable for their owners as the tuning keys are for the harpists?

The connection of the word Corgi with Cur appears to have considerable historical support. As the popular conception of the Cur is a mongrel, or crossbred dog at best, it is, of course, not surprising that the diversion to dwarf dog took place, but it must be understood that the term cur was not commonly used in the derogatory sense when applied to dogs and it generally indicated a working type of dog as opposed to the sporting and luxury dog.

The ancient Welsh laws referred to three kinds of curs: the Watch Cur, the Shepherd's Cur and the House Cur. The oldest surviving references to British dogs working cattle are contained in the Laws of Hywel Dda (Hywel or Howell the Good, c. 880-950). It is interesting to find that in the legal references to the Corgi he is termed a Cur. The Herdsman's or Shepherd's Cur, besides having a legal value, was of considerable importance and one of the laws lays down that "There are three indispensables to the summer resident: a bothy; a herdsman's cur; and a knife".

These ancient laws were remarkably concise and intelligible in their references to dogs and by law a value was placed upon each breed, carefully worked out according to job of work, age and degree of training. The worth of the Shepherd's or the Herdsman's Cur was relatively high in comparison with the Watch Cur and the House Cur and was of equal value to an ox if proved to be a genuine herder or drover. Hence the Cur used with cattle (and sheep) was legally recognized in Wales as a valuable breed of dog. That the King's Greyhound was often of no higher value than the Cur, is another indication that the Cur by no means was a worthless tyke.

As is well known, the Corgi is a heeler that is one who nips the heels of lagging cattle to hurry them on. When Corgis were first exhibited in Wales they were often classified as heelers at the agricultural shows and this name is the only English synonym for the Corgi (exept for cur, which is a a translation of the Welsh name).

The Welsh word for the noun heel is sawdl while the verb to heel is sodli, and Welshmen have for centuries called the Corgi Ci Sodli (plural Cwn Sodli).

There is one other name which is often loosely referred to when writing or talking of the Corgi and this is Ci Llathed (properly Ci Llathaid) which is made from ci (dog) and llath or llathen (a yard or rod). By this yard is meant the Welsh yard which is four inches longer than an English yard, thus making forty inches. However, when a Welshman talks of the Ci Llathaid he usually means the Cardiganshire Corgi, who with his full-length tail can, and often does, make a reach of one Welsh yard (101.60 cm)from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail.

In her book The Welsh Corgi Thelma Gray mentions that Corgi could possibly be a contraction of Corlan Gi (sheepfold dog), but since it was seldom that Corgis were used for sheep herding, this theory seems not as probable as some others.

The word Corgi is (or at least was) commonly used in South Wales, not only to denote a breed of dog peculiar to those parts, but much in the same way as the word "rascal" is used, though in the playful and affectionate sense rather than as a term of reproach. One dictionary defines Corgi as "a saucy dog - a cur".

The Welsh language is entirely phonetic and once the alphabet is mastered, there is little difficulty in pronouncing the words, but for the uninitiated it is almost impossible to figure out the Welsh names in pedigrees. For some reason or another, the breeders of Cardigan Corgis still seem to adhere more faithfully to Welsh names for their dogs' pedigrees, while the Pembroke breeders for the most part use more commonplace English names or names in their respective language.

Clifford L.B. Hubbard: The Pembrokeshire Corgi and The Cardiganshire Corgi, both published in 1952 by Nicholson& Watson, London).
Thelma Gray: The Welsh Corgi. Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire Types. (2nd ed. 1939).