We were asked recently about the Chow Chow’s name. Perplexed, the reader pointed out that “chow chow” is a condiment, not a dog. There are several theories about the origins of the breed’s name, and a couple of them are food related.
Most canine historians believe that the name derived from a Pidgin English term used in the 17th century to refer to great variety of cargo from the Orient, and that included dogs. Chinese cargo was called chow-chow, and perhaps it was a nickname not unlike “knick knack.” It was a catch-all term for anything imported from the East including curios, dolls, porcelain, and dogs.
As the reader pointed out, chow chow,” is a relish combining an assortment of ingredients, a sort of piccalilli, and that falls along the lines of a nickname referring to an assortment of goods. That, however, is mere speculation.
Some cynologists think because ancestors of the Chow Chow were used a protein source, the breed was nicknamed as “edible dog,” and that the name “Chow” was derived from the Cantonese word for “edible.” Why it was doubled to “chow chow” is anyone’s guess.
Chow Chow is not actually what the dogs are called in China. They are called “Songshi Quan,” but there have been other names, as well, including bear dog (xiang go), black tongue dog (Hei Shi-tu or Hsiung Kou), wolf dog (Lang Kou) and canton dog (guangdong go). Apart from “edible dog from China,” the breed was called also “Wonk.”
Interestingly, the Complete Dog Book published by the American Kennel Club in 1935 speculated that the Chow originated in northern Siberia. As the property of nomads, these dogs would have arrived in China via Mongolia, and it as thought they were used as war dogs. This lead to yet another name, “kou,” meaning “dog of the Barbarians.”