Gone to the Dogs: Idioms

Last week, we looked at feline-inspired idioms with The Cat’s Out of the Bag. For today’s Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, let’s take another trail in the labyrinth where we find our canine companions.

Check out the following dog-related idioms and their origins.

Barking up the wrong tree. Back in the 1800s, people went raccoon hunting. (Meanwhile, all I have to do is wait for the raccoons to show up to my porch where my sons will shoot them with airsoft bullets to scare them away.) Since raccoons are nocturnal, hunts occurred at night when sight was limited and scent was a better clue. Hunters would bring dogs to pick up the scent. If a raccoon climbed up a tree, a dog would stand at the base and bark up at it, signaling the hunter to climb the tree and get his prey. But if the hunter climbed and no raccoon was found, that dog was “barking up the wrong tree.”

Gone to the dogs. In medieval times, the rich discarded their table scraps and partially eaten food by throwing out for the dogs. Impoverished, starving folk could be found sifting through the leftovers with the dogs, looking for something to eat. Thus, one who is down on his luck and has deteriorated has “gone to the dogs.”

Dog eat dog. This is usually expressed as “It’s dog eat dog out there!” or “It’s a dog-eat-dog world.” According to Christine Ammer, author of Cool Cats and Top Dogs (and Other Beastly Expressions), in 43 B.C. a Roman man of letters Marcus Tarentius Varro said “Canis caninam non est.” Had you been studying your Latin faithfully, you would know that translates as “Dog does not eat dog.” He meant to suggest that even animals like dogs have limits and will not destroy their own kind. Surely, we humans could show some restraint as well!

But as any pit bull gambler and schoolyard graduate will note, dogs do eat dogs. Thus, by the Industrial Revolution, the phrase “dog eat dog” to connote a cut-throat, competitive world had taken hold. By 1789, the London Times printed:  “As it is an established fact, that sharper will not rob sharper, nor dog eat dog.”

Every dog has his day.  Stuart and Doris Flexner explain in Wise Words and Wives’ Tales: The Origins, Meanings and Time-Honored Wisdom of Proverbs and Folk Sayings Olde and New that medieveal Dutch scholar Erasmus gave the history on this one. He said that the phrase was used after the death of Euripides, a Greek playwright, who was mauled and killed by a pack of dogs in 405 B.C. (presumably loosed upon him by a rival). The saying refers to the presumption that even the most lowly person will at some time get revenge on an oppressor, no matter how powerful the oppressor may be.

Greek biographer Plutarch first recorded the phrase in Moralia (written in 95) as “Even a dog gets his revenge.” In 1539, Englishman Richard Taverner wrote, “A dogge hath a day” (Proverbes). By 1670, John Ray gave us “every dog hath his day” (A Collection of English Proverbs). It’s a great saying, but still a shame that Euripedes had to get ripped to shreds by canines for this phrase to make its way to us.

Working like a dog. I’ve never seen dogs engaged in particularly hard work myself. However, Looney Tunes got this one right with its Ralph E. Wolf & Sam Sheepdog cartoons. Sheepdogs are said to work from dawn to dusk for nothing more than food, a place to sleep, and affection. Perhaps this phrase should be “working like a sheepdog,” since no one has accused chihuahuas of being overly taxed.

Dog days. I became especially interested in this one after downloading Florence + The Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over.” Ancient Romans noted that the hottest days of the year (late July/early August) coincided with the appearance of Sirius, the Dog Star, and thus believed that the star contributed to the heat of the day. Therefore, these hot summer days became known as the dog days.

Wag the dog. You might know this phrase from 1997 film of its title with Robert de Niro and Dustin Hoffman. However, the original proverb came from the 19th century. Rudyard Kipling wrote in The Conundrum of the Workshops (1892): “We know that the tail must wag the dog, for, the horse is drawn by the cart.” What that means is that a tail wagging the dog is like putting the cart before the horse. So to “wag the dog” is simply to put the wrong priority first.

Of course, there is the idiom that includes both canines and felines: It’s raining cats and dogs. Where did we get that one? There is an ancient nautical myth that cats had some sort of influence over storms, and a Norse (Viking) myth that dogs were a symbol of storms. Ancient mariners believed that cats caused the rain and dogs brought the gales. Thus a major thunderstorm was referred to as “raining cats and dogs.” The phrase is first recorded in literature in 1738 by Jonathan Swift (A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation).

Are you a cat person, a dog person, both, or neither? Can you think of any other dog idioms? What are your favorite canine-inspired sayings?

Sources: The Pet Wiki, The Phrase Finder, Red Herrings & White Elephants by Albert Jack, Word DetectiveWordOrigins.org, UsingEnglish.com, Cesar’s Way, Wikipedia

ROW80: I am participating in Round 2. My goals can be found by clicking the #ROW80 tab at the top. I will post my first update on Sunday, April 8.

11 thoughts on “Gone to the Dogs: Idioms

  1. Love this post, Julie! You simply can’t go wrong with dogs. Fascinating bit regarding “dog eat dog.” I wonder if it should be: “…poorly trained/treated dogs eat dogs…” Hmm… 😉

  2. Some fun history I didn’t know! I’ve always wondered, though, why people claim to be “as sick as a dog.” I don’t think dogs get sicker than other animals (or people), do they? Anyway, thanks for another fun word post!

    1. That one comes from scripture. There is a biblical proverb about a dog returning to its own vomit. So to be as sick as a dog is to upchuck. Gross, huh?

      Thanks, Jennette!

      1. LOL! I remember that now! I actually had a kids’ Bible where that was illustrated, can you believe it! A very stylized cartoon drawing, but still…!

  3. Did you ever watch The Sure Thing? It was an 80s movie with John Cusack. My favorite line from that film was “This week’s assignment is to rewrite last week’s assignment. Remember, ‘As the dog returneth to his own vomit… so does the fool to his folly.'” Which, I think, says a lot about us writers. LOL

    My favorite usage of “every dog has its day” is from Reservoir Dogs. I’ve while away many a minute thinking about what that meant. The meek shall inherit the earth? Everybody has a day when their world turns to poop?

    And, of course, I am a dog person. Bowowow.

    1. I can’t remember The Sure Thing. Which is crazy because I love John Cusack. That quote sounds familiar, though. That one is true of some writers, Catie. LOL.

  4. Definitely a dog person, myself (though I didn’t think so as a child), so I really appreciate the origins listed for these common expressions. 🙂

  5. I am the biggest dog fan. Ever! I assure you that. I had to put in my two cents on this post just for that fact. I plan on having my very own Mini Beagle and Jack Russell Terrier one day. Sigh.

    1. Sadly, Julia, I’ve had some bad past experiences with dogs. I try to get past my nervousness around them because I know that some of them are very sweet. I’m sure your dogs would be fabulous! One of my favorite dogs (owned by a friend) is a terrier — great breed.

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