How did "vicious" come to describe aggressive dogs, while "vices" are usually consensual?

Inspired by the thread about the word “degenerate”.

Without wishing to overgeneralize, it seems that the word “vice” today often connotes behavioral failings or moral flaws that typically do not have direct victims, and which may be consensual in nature–for instance gambling, drug abuse, and gluttony. While theologians and philosophers might disagree, we don’t normally think of “vice” as including crimes against other people like assault.

Yet the word “vicious” as applied to dogs means one that is aggressive and dangerous to passersby. A vicious dog isn’t running illicit dice games or visiting crack houses or opium dens. On the other hand, the dog may well be gluttonous, but then that can be true of some of the nicest dogs you’d ever want to meet.

How did the meanings diverge

Wrath or anger is one of the seven deadly vices, no?

“Vice” is ultimately from the Latin vitium, a fault, defect. It refers to any kind of immoral or evil conduct, with or without an identifiable victim.

I suspect the narrower sense in which it’s used in American English arose because, if asked to justify why they were criminalising activities like gambling, prostitution etc which did not visibly impact on non-consenting parties, the Puritan response would have been that those activities were vices, and so deserving of criminalisation. No such justification was sought for criminalising things like murder, theft or robbery, so, although they can properly be called vices, the occasion for calling them vices didn’t arise so often, and the word “vice” came to be used mainly in the context of victimless vices.

The word isn’t used in that context quite so much in other dialects of English. My dialect is Hiberno-English, and I associate the word “vice” first and foremost with bad habits in horses - shying, crib-biting and so on. “Vice” in a legal or criminal context evokes American TV cop shows.

Anyone who’s ever had a vice will probably agree that they can be vicious.

Eh. How did aggressive come to describe these dogs, for that matter? Sometimes a dog is reacting fearfully (often for good reason, the way some people treat them) and people describe the behavior as “aggressive.”

[ul][li]Humans tend to assign moral values to animals[/li][li]Many humans are poor interpreters of animal communication, including dog body language[/li]Sometimes we have an ulterior motive. Fearful people, overprotective parents, politicians looking for non-voting targets of public ire, and lawyers hoping to get a settlement, all tend to use “vicious” to describe animals.[/ul]

I love how questions get asked here that I’d have never thought to ask at all.

I’m going to venture a WAG about this, though.

Violence has historically been seen as having good and bad versions. If you kill someone in war or self-defense, that a proper thing to do and not a vice, whereas attacking some passer-by to steal their wallet, or killing them out of random anger is clearly not proper. So it makes sense that we might need to specify a “vice-ous” type of violence to separate it from a “virtuous” type of violence.
We can compare this to other vices: there’s never a time when it is non-sinful to get drunk, or non-sinful to visit prostitutes. So a “vice-ous” version of these activities is just redundant. They are always vices.

A conentious claim, I think. :smiley: