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Copenhagen, Denmark

It’s a funny word, Scandinavia. Etymologically, its roots lie in an Old Norse name for the southernmost region of Sweden, Skaney, to which has been added an ancient Germanic word meaning ‘island’. Put together, that gave us a Germanic name for the far north of Europe something along the lines of Scadinauja – or, at least, that was until the Ancient Roman scholar and author Pliny the Elder got his hands on it.

In his Natural History (c. 79 ce), Pliny described several of the creatures that originate ‘in the North Parts’ of Europe, including among them the elk, ‘maned bisons’, several ‘remarkable kinds of wild cattle’, and a curious creature he called the machlis:

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In Scandinavia, but nowhere else in the world, there is a beast called the Machlis, not much unlike [the elk] but without any bending of the pastern, and therefore he never lieth down but sleepeth leaning against a tree Their upper lip is exceeding great, and therefore as they feed they go backward; for if they passed forward, it would be folded double.

Now, it’s fair to say Pliny wasn’t particularly well known for his scientific accuracy even at the best of times. (After all, it was he who gave us the myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand, and elsewhere in his Natural History he talks of a race of dog-headed people who bark at each other, and another whose feet are so large they can lie on their backs and shade themselves from the sun.) And he makes a fair few factual missteps here too.

For one, he thought the fabled ‘machlis’ was a different creature from the elk. It wasn’t – machlis was just another name for it. Secondly, elk are perfectly capable of lying down, and certainly don’t need to lean against a tree to fall asleep. And nor do they have such fleshy lips that if they were to graze while walking forwards they wouldn’t be able to eat. And nor, oddly enough, did they live in Pliny’s ‘Scandinavia’: somehow, Pliny managed to drop an extra N into the existing name Scadinavia, and thanks to the popularity and influence of his work after his death, it’s remained with us ever since.

But Pliny’s Scandinavia isn’t the only etymological malfunction the north of Europe has to offer. While we’re staying here in Denmark, there’s one more misstep worth pointing out.

Denmark’s contributions to the dictionary range from Danish pastries (first mentioned in English in the 1910s) to Danish embroidery (an especially fine style of needlework) and Denmark satin (a high-quality fabric once used to make Victorian women’s shoes). Each is a world leader in its respective field and ultimately namechecks its country of origin with considerable pride.

As, for that matter, does the Great Dane – another world leader, holding as it does the record for the world’s tallest dog. But while the Great Dane has always been great, it hasn’t always been – well, a Dane.

Genetically, the Great Dane’s origins are thought to lie among the fierce hunters’ hounds of Ancient Greece. Over centuries, these ferocious boarhounds spread across Europe, where they were bred and crossbred with various other breeds – including greyhounds, English mastiffs and Irish wolfhounds – to produce ever more sizeable, tenacious and intelligent dogs. By the sixteenth century, the breed as we know it today had started to emerge in what is now Germany: in 1592, the Duke of Braunschweig reportedly assembled a pack of 600 exclusively male dogs for a boar hunt on his estate (which tells you a little something of the size of his estate, and rather a lot more about how badly it must have smelled). But while these grand dogs were certainly among the modern Great Dane’s genetic ancestors, they were by no means among their etymological ones.

Thanks to the popularity of long-legged English and Irish breeds in the quest for ever taller and ever more powerful hunting hounds, these early hybrids became known in their native German as Englischer Hundes, or ‘English dogs’. As the breed continued to standardise over the years that followed, national pride took over, so that by the nineteenth century these ‘English dogs’ had been rebranded Deutsche Dogges, or ‘German dogs’; an official Deutsche Dogge Club of Germany was founded in 1891. The breed’s German connection endured even outside Germany: in France, it became known as the dogue allemande, in Spain it was the alano alemán, and in English it was originally the German boarhound. But around the turn of the century, all that began to change.

As tension between Germany and its neighbours began to heat up, ultimately – just as it had done with the Alsatian – the appetite for anything and everything sounding even vaguely German evaporated. As a result credit for these tall and robust hunting hounds was snatched from Germany and handed to its northern neighbour, Denmark: by the early twentieth century, the German boarhound had successfully been rebranded in the English-speaking world as the Great Dane.

Quite why Denmark should have been given the credit is unclear, but it is likely that the new name was meant to have harked back to an earlier breed that had become popular in the 1700s under the French name grand danois. Whatever the explanation, it’s all a geographical miscellany: from Ancient Greece to not-quite-so-ancient Germany, by way of England and Ireland, and eventually handed, rather unceremoniously, to Denmark. The Great Dane really isn’t all that Danish.

As a world leader both in medicine and in liberal attitudes, Denmark is also namechecked in the expression to go to Denmark – 1960s slang for undertaking gender reassignment surgery. The phrase is a reference to Christine Jorgensen, a New York-born trans woman who travelled to Denmark in 1951 to undergo a much-publicised procedure.

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