I love dogs. I think I was just born that way. Given that I’m part of a vast community of canophilists, it’s never made sense to me that dogs often feature in an unfavorable way in English. Every group in the animal kingdom is represented in at least a few phrases, idioms, allusions, and metaphors, but I doubt any can top the number of familiar expressions that rely on the dog. Remarkably few of these, however, speak of virtues, which in my view is what dogs are all about. If virtues include selflessness, loyalty, courage, patience, forgiveness, and unconditional love, I have to say the dogs I’ve known could teach most humans a thing or two. But that isn’t quite the picture our idiomatic language paints.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there…
Without blinking an eye, I can rattle off more than two dozen “dog” expressions, among them: sick as a dog; go to the dogs; be in the doghouse; dog-tired; throw someone to the dogs; not a dog’s chance; the dogs of war; dog days; and dog in the manger. There’s a lot of misery, negativity, or just plain distaste in these dismal expressions. Even a dog’s life, which I naively used to think referred to pleasant circumstances, in fact means “an unhappy existence, full of problems or unfair treatment.” Why such disdain for the noble dog?
Dogged by negativity?
Worse yet, the linguistic assault is not limited to phrases. The word dog all by itself has generated a number of negative figurative uses, at least six times more than the lowly rat!
In most dictionaries, there are two such meanings for rat:
- a person regarded as despicable
- an informer
Now look at just a few of the unsavory definitions for dog:
- a person regarded as unpleasant, contemptible, or wicked
- a woman regarded as unattractive
- a thing of poor quality
- a failure
- a person who is abject or miserable
Even when dog became a verb, it retained those negative vibes: none of us would choose to be dogged by controversy. The doggone injustice! Look at doggerel, too, and its “parent,” dog Latin. Other dog-related words don’t fare much better. Cur, mongrel, mutt,and bitch come to mind, and let’s just say they’re not exactly terms of endearment. The only bright spot for me when writing this was the discovery in the Oxford English Dictionary of the word dog-given (an obsolete rare term for which the OED provides just one citation, dated at around 1611), defined as “addicted to dogs.” I don’t smoke, drink, or gamble, so I think at this point in my life I’m entitled to the addiction of my choice, and I choose dogs: letcanophilia rule!
Christine A. Lindberg
7 June 2011
Senior lexicographer Christine A. Lindberg is the principal content editor of Oxford’s American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Part of the original OUP US Dictionaries Program established in Connecticut in 1997, she currently works from her office in the Leatherstocking Region of New York State.