It appears to be one of the great mysteries of the
collie breeds, but where did the word "collie" come from?
In her book, Herding Dogs, Their Origins and
Development in Britain (Faber & Faber, 1987), Iris Combe says
"'Collie' is a Gaelic word meaning useful." However, Mackenzie, in
his English-Gaelic Dictionary (Gairm Publications, Glasgow, 1975)
gives these words as definitions of the word "useful" (the
translation, in parentheses, from Gaelic to English comes from
Dwelly, The Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary, Gairm
words do not bear any resemblance to the word "collie". (Combe was
speaking of Irish Gaelic, which is usually called "Irish", as
opposed to Scottish Gaelic, which is usually just called "Gaelic".
There are differences in the two languages, but both derive from the
same Celtic strain and have many words in common).
Combe goes on the say that "some say that the
collie, or colley in its [early] English spelling, got it's name
from the breed of sheep it herded." She posits that the black-faced
sheep may have been called "coaley" for black. This idea is also
promoted by the often quoted reference in Chaucer's Nonnes Tale "Ran
Colle our dogge...", the implication being that he was a black dog,
and that's why his name was Colle (like "Blackie").
Merriam-Webster online dictionary seems to agree
with Combe. Their entries for "colly" and "collie" seem to support
the idea of a coal-black origin:
Main Entry: colly
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): collied; collying
Etymology: alteration of Middle English colwen,
from Old English colgian, from Old English col (coal)
Definition: (Dialect chiefly British) to blacken
with or as if with soot
Main Entry: collie
Etymology: probably from English dialect colly
Date: circa 1651
Definition: any of a breed of large dogs developed
in Scotland that occur in rough-coated and smooth-coated varieties
and have erect ears and a long muzzle.
In Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream,
Lysander says "Brief as the lightning in the collied night" further
advancing this origin for the word collie.
Salopia Antiqua (or An Enquiry From Personal Survey
Into the Druidical, Military, and Other Early Remains in Shropshire
and the North Welsh Borders with Observations Upon the Names of
Places and A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Salop) by the
Rev. Charles Henry Hartshorne (John W. Parker, London, 1841), also
supports this root for the word collie in the section on "A Glossary
of Words Used in Shropshire":
Coller, Colly. s. the black incrustation of smoke
and soot which adheres to the outside of a pot or kettle. A[nglo]
Sax[on], col; Swed[ish], Germ[an], kol; Dan[ish], kul; Teut[onic],
Colly. v. to dirty, to smut. Ex[amples] "collied
his face all o'er"; "passion having my best judgement collied"
(Shakespeare, Othello, ii. 3).
A Dictionary of English Etymology by Hensleigh
Wedgwood (Third Edition, 1878 by Macmillan & Co., New York), gives a
different and more interesting derivation of the word:
Colly. A shepherd's dog, from having its tail
cropped. Sw[edish], kullug, lollig, without horns [or] wanting some
member that ought to be there. Sc[ots], to coll, to poll [a polled
sheep, for example, means one without horns]. In Hesse, a shepherd's
dog is often called Mutz, from muta, a stump; kullmutz, kullarsch, a
However, in Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of
the Scottish Language (Alexander Gardner, Paisley, 1889), another
definition is put forth that seems to make more sense, and also
proves that Combe was not so far off the mark in wanting to
attribute the word "collie" to the Gaelic:
COLLIE, COLLEY. s. 1. The vulgar [meaning "common"]
name for the shepherd's dog...Gael. culean, a grown whelp, has for
its vocative culyie, which is the term used when one calls to a
whelp. [In Gaelic] Coo or cu signifies a dog.
Just to carry this a bit further, Dwelly
(considered by some to be the Gaelic-English dictionary) gives the
definition of cuilean (a slightly different spelling from Jamieson,
the vocative being a chuilein!) as "1. Whelp.
2. Puppy...5. Frequently used for a dog of full growth or any age".
To me, this is fairly conclusive. If you should
come across any other explanation to where the word "collie" comes
from, please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org).