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an illustration of a dog pulled by a string carrying something in its mouth, captioned 'bring it here!'
figure 1  

 

fetch. (imperative verb) An order to go and get something.

“Fetch” is a command,reference 1 carrying in it an implicit power dynamic: those who issue the command are in control; those who do the fetching are subservient. While the term's origins are in no way specific to dogs, in contemporary usage the image which is most often called to mind is that of a dog chasing a stick or a tennis ball.reference 2 To use the term in regard to a human's actions is to equate the power relationship between the humans with that of a dog and its master. This is yet another example of the metaphorical association between dogs and low-status persons or servants. Fetching is something that servants and slaves do (dogs included in these categories for metaphorical purposes) and the use of the word cannot be considered neutral and, depending upon context, can be profoundly offensive.

 

 

1. Whitney, William Dwight, and Benjamin E. Smith. 1914. The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia; with a New Atlas of the World. Century Co. Accessed from http:// www.global-language.com/ century/.

2. In a an image search for the word “fetch” on Google, performed on Oct 4, 2002, of the first 100 images, 97 were either of dogs, usually fetching something or of the Fetch Softworks Apple utility, which has as its logo, what else, a dog with a floppy disk in its mouth.
A promotional picture of Stepin Fetchit.
figure 2  
This connection between “fetch” and servant status is reinforced by the name of early Hollywood 's best known and, perhaps, most offensive African-American character, Stepin Fetchit. Born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Perry, Fetchit is reported to have taken his stage name from a race horse on which he had won some money. Regardless of the origin, the White-owned studios no doubt found the name apt for a character that they used “to reinforce the stereotype of the lazy good-for-nothing Negro.”reference 3 Fetchit remains a disturbing and potent reference, as demonstrated in Spike Lee's 2001 film, Bamboozled, in which Lee explores the history of minstrel shows, stereotypes of African Americans in film, and the present day manifestations of these images.
3. Mills, Michael. 1997. Midnight Ramble. Modern Times. Accessed Oct 4 2002 from http:// www.moderntimes.com/ palace/black/index.html.

As I note in Dogs as Self and Other, comparing African Americans to dogs in this way is part of a larger linguistic pattern.

Being subservient and fetching stuff are things that dogs, unlike humans, do by nature, though it is likely that only game hunters derive any material benefit from the fetching part. This tendency, like tail chasing, is a result of neoteny (the tendency for dogs to retain the behavior of adolescence into adulthood. See puppy dog) which is, in turn, the result of domestication.
 
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About the illustrations:

Figure 1 is from a book called Dog Etiquette published by the Ralston Purina Company. © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.

Figure 2 shows a still from Stepin Fetchit's Hearts in Dixie (1929). That the film is the first Hollywood film with an all-Black cast is noteworthy. That it was the vehicle for introducing Fetchit to a wide audience is a sad reminder that for many years the only parts available to African American actors were not only as servants, but also as objects for ritual humiliation.  

4. Ralston Purina Company. 1941. Dog Etiquette. St. Louis, Mo.: The Ralston Purina Co.

5. Weems, Walter. P. Sloane, writer. 1929. Hearts in Dixie. t. C. Fox. 32 mm film.
see also: Dogs as Self and Other
cf: heel; down!
Last updated: July 5, 2008
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