Q&A: Where does “teacher’s pet” come from?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have pet theories…

Q: Hey AWC, with school going back this week, I have a question.

A: What’s the question?

Q: Where do we get the term “teacher’s pet” from?

A: Oh, good one.

Q: Like, when I was at school, our teacher had a pet hamster called Vivi that we each got to take home.

A: How unsettling for the poor animal. Was Vivi short for vivisection?

Q: Not sure. I just remember the pressure of having to fill that scrapbook with adventures because Lucy Brown had taken him skydiving and on a rollercoaster the week before.

A: Ah yes, a common classroom problem. Lucy was probably hoping to be the teacher’s pet.

Q: Okay, so here we are again – I take it has nothing to do with a pet hamster or rabbit?

A: Correct. The word “teacher” has been around for at least seven centuries, and has kept its meaning throughout. “Pet” however, has tried on a few meanings in this time – a bit like a hamster skin-testing different cosmetics.

Q: Ouch. Poor Vivi. What sort of meanings?

A: The idea of keeping a domesticated animal in the house didn’t take hold until around the 1530s, in Scotland and England. It’s likely to have come from the word “petty” – initially meaning small or young.

Q: Let’s not get too petty…

A: Okay then. Some of the first pets were lambs – kept in the house instead of leaving them into the great wide open.

Q: Let’s not get Tom Petty…

A: What is interesting is that some decades earlier, the actual first meaning of pet was “indulged or favourite child” – and it’s where the animal version came from, not the other way around.

Q: You mentioned other meanings?

A: Oh yes, one definition for “pet” from the 1580s that has since died out was as a “fit of peevishness, offence or ill-humour at feeling slighted” – possibly related to the word “petulant”. So instead of taking offence at something, you might “take the pet”. It may have influenced the much later American saying, “that really gets my goat” – a similar meaning.

Q: So when did teachers start having pets?

A: Well first up, “pet” as an adjective by 1826 had come to mean “an especially cherished thing” – beyond just children or lambs. It then became a term of endearment during the 1840s.

Q: Oh yes, “are you alright, pet?” – it feels like I’m talking to a female shopkeeper in northeast England!

A: Exactly – and then during the 1850s, we see “teacher’s pet” first used. No one is quite sure why it started appearing in schools.

Q: My guess is that Mary had a little lamb as a pet, and it followed her to school one day!

A: Haha, very likely. “Teacher’s pet” – despite sounding lovely and cherished, was used by other students in a derogatory way to describe the favoured student.

Q: Oh, because the student would suck up to them and leave apples on their desk?

A: Or Androids. But yes, all those things. Over time, the meaning hasn’t really changed – perhaps a little less universally derogatory today. “Pet” has simply gone on to be synonymous with “favourite” across a lot of things.

Q: Examples?

A: Well, you might have a “pet project”, or hold a “pet theory”.

Q: Or have a “pet peeve”?

A: Haha, yes that’s a little different – it uses “pet” in the role of “main” or “principal” rather than “favourite”. The term “pet peeve” was first seen in 1917, and it’s likely the idiom played on the irony between something you love and something you hate.

Q: What is a “peeve” anyway?

A: Good question! It was formed from the word “peevish” – meaning fretful or even spiteful (and once linked to “pervert”). “Peeve” appeared by 1912 as a verb – “to irritate, complain or grumble”. Yet in “pet peeve” only, it takes on the role of a noun. A “peeve” in this context was clearly a complaint or irritation. 

Q: It’s actually just a more modern version of that “take the pet” thing we were talking about earlier!

A: Hmmm, so it is. Language finds a way!

Q: So, to recap – my pet peeve growing up was that Lucy Brown was the teacher’s pet.

A: Yes, exactly. By the way, whatever happened to her? Did she become a teacher? Maybe a zookeeper?

Q: She works as a chemist developing new cosmetics.

A: Poor Vivi…


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