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.

The Cat’s Out of the Bag: Idioms

Welcome to Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, where we enter the labyrinth of language and look for something interesting among the hedges. Today’s topic is in honor of our feline friends. I was going to do a post with idioms that included both dogs and cats, but there are so many that I will need to cover “man’s best friend” next Wednesday. Stay tuned.

In full disclosure, I am a cat person. While there are some lovely dogs out there, I gravitate toward the furballs who largely ignore you unless they want food or petting on their own schedule. In case you care, here are my cats:

Eclipse & Shadow

And now for the feline-inspired idioms and their origins.

The cat’s meow. A lot of slang words were introduced in the 1920s, including “the cat’s meow” — meaning something excellent or outstanding. It was introduced by American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, who also coined “dumbbell,” “for crying out loud,” “hard-boiled,” and another popular cat idiom: “the cat’s pajamas.” From what I can tell, there’s no rhyme or reason to it. But it caught on.

Couldn't find "cat's meow" comic. Here's "dumb-bell."

Cat got your tongue? Several theories exist on this one. Here’s one to make you cringe: Hundreds of years ago in the Mideast, liars had their tongues cut out and fed to the king’s pet felines. Well, maybe. But the first incidence of the term in the Oxford English Dictionary occurs in 1911, so this phrase wasn’t used much before then. It may simply be the general superstition about cats (e.g., don’t cross a black cat) that inspires this phrase meaning you can’t talk.

Not enough room to swing a cat. I had heard that this phrase came from 17th century sailors swinging the cat o’ nine tails, but according to Albert Jack (White Elephants & Red Herrings) this isn’t about a whip. Two centuries earlier, there was a “sport” of swinging cats by the tail into the air, making them moving targets for archers. This activity occurred at fairs and festivals, and if there were large crowds, there wouldn’t enough be room to swing a cat.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. After reading the swing-a-cat story, I was so relieved to find that this one isn’t even about cats! Catfish are easy to catch, but their skin is difficult to remove. Apparently, there are several ways to skin a catfish, but no one in their right mind would skin a beautiful furry feline.

Curiosity killed the cat. The original phrase was “care killed the cat” from Ben Jonson’s 1598 play, Every Man in His Humor: “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.” Don’t ask me what that line means. In Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, it was defined as “Care killed the Cat. It is said that a cat has nine lives [see below], but care would wear them all out.” That same year, the word “care” was exchanged for “curiosity” in The Galveston Daily News: “It is said that once ‘curiosity killed a Thomas cat.'” This new turn of the phrase was used by O’Henry in 1909 in Schools and Schools: “Curiosity can do more things than kill a cat; and if emotions, well recognized as feminine, are inimical to feline life, then jealousy would soon leave the whole world catless.”

I don’t know why care, or worry, would kill a cat to begin with. However, curiosity hasn’t always had the positive connotation it has today. Curiosity has at times been seen as challenging the status quo (tsk, tsk). Lord Byron called curiosity a “low vice” in Don Juan. I personally prefer the line I’ve seen several places: “Curiosity didn’t kill the cat; it was framed.”

A cat has nine lives. The number nine is considered sacred or mystical in some religions and mythology. Think about the trinity of trinities, nine muses, “dressed to the nines,” and a cat’s nine lives. Thus, when people in the Middle Ages had no X-Box or American Idol to entertain them, they threw cats off towers and watched them fall. Surprisingly, cats survived the murderous drop by twisting their bodies and landing on four paws. A cat seemed mystical in that moment: Surely it must have nine lives! My conclusion: The medievalers needed to get one life.

Let the cat out of the bag. Two good options here. First, back in the Middle Ages, people bought their food from the local marketplace. Apparently, some vendors were less honest than others. This idiom comes from a person purchasing a piglet at the market. While the vendor exchanged money and distracted the customer, the piglet in the bag would be exchanged for a cat. Only when the customer arrived home would the secret be discovered, as they “let the cat out of the bag.” Second, and far less appealing to me, there was once a game in which a cat was put in a bag filled with soot and hung on a tree. The game’s object was for competitors to cut open the sack, let the cat free, but not get covered with soot themselves.

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

Sources: The Pet Wiki, The Phrase Finder, Red Herrings & White Elephants by Albert Jack, Lambiek Comic Shop, Cat-ch Phrases, The Word Detective, Moggies – Online Cat Guide, Westminster Gazette, Askville by Amazon.com