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The Stories Behind 10 Popular Dog-Inspired Sayings

It's raining cats and dogs? What the heck does that mean? Find out here, along with the meanings behind nine other furry phrases.

 |  Jul 12th 2012  |   3 Contributions


We've all heard of canine-referenced phrases, but where did they come from and what do they mean? Did Elvis Presley really think of a pooch when crooning “Hound Dog” to adoring fans? We unearth 10 popular dog sayings, songs, and seemingly howl-inducing idioms.

1. Every dog has its day

In my household, every day (ergo, minute) is one revolving around dog in some way, shape, or form: at my feet, scrawled across a computer screen, or in an attachment, as I share a picture of a rescue pooch in need of a forever home. The saying, however, finds its origins deep in the Elizabethan period. In requesting a photo of herself from her brother, Princess Elizabeth (eventually Queen Elizabeth I), wrote, “Notwithstanding, as a dog hath a day, so may I perchance have time to declare it in deeds."

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Statue of man with dog by Shutterstock.com.

Some sources cite Erasmus, a Dutch scholar, who wrote that upon the death of Greek playwright Euripides in 405 B.C. by a pack of dogs, the saying was thus born. For me, as an English major in college, ‘twas not Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy speech that resonated, but his “the cat will mew and dog will have his day” line of the same play that struck a nerve. Derivation aside, the interpretation implies that no matter what happens in life, we all will have our “rising up” at some point.

2. "Hound Dog" 

Recorded during the same session as Elvis Presley’s "Don’t Be Cruel," both sides of the single reached No. 1 status in the U.S. in 1958. Presley wasn’t the first to record the song, with blues singer Ellie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton first putting it on the charts in 1953. 

The song served as a bit of an aphrodisiac for screaming fans while Presley gyrated his pelvis. Dancing was viewed as evil by some, and Presley’s motions increasingly stirred that pot. Hound dog, in this case, is a metaphor for a cheating man, as the song was first recorded by a woman. Rumor has it that Presley never liked the song. A bit of a hound dog himself, perhaps?

3. Dog days of summer

From July 3 through Aug. 11, Sirius, the dog star, rises in near synchronous fashion with the sun. These “dog days” have evolved to mean the hottest time of year, like in this phrase, “It’s 98 degrees; the dog days of summer are upon us!” 

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Big dogs sitting in sun by Shutterstock.com.

Sirius does not cause the warmer period of summer to occur, as temperatures rise as a result of the Earth’s tilt and its position relative to the sun. Ancient Romans, however, believed Sirius to be bright enough to produce heat to warm the planet. “The dog days of summer” buries its roots many moons ago, but the phrase is used to this day. Hot enough for you? 

4. Dog tired

Who among us, after a long day, hasn’t been utterly exhausted, worn out, and simply dog tired? Certainly, the person who first uttered this phrase wasn’t raising a retriever puppy at the time. So the origins go that Alfred the Great, king of Wessex from 871 to 899, would send his sons out with a pack of hunting dogs. Whoever would catch the most hounds would gain a seat next to their father at the dinner table. It is believed these “hunts” would leave the boys dog tired of their pursuits. 

5. "Mandy"

Fanilows, sway with me. Non-Fanilows, put the tomatoes down! I'm a self-admitted Barry Manilow fan. It's rumored that his '70s-era hit song was written by Scott English and Richard Kerri with a dog in mind. Fetching my Manilow box set (reserve judgment, please), the accompanying booklet quotes English as saying, “It was not” written about a dog. In its first draft, the song was called “Brandy.” The song title was consequently changed because the group Looking Glass had a song out around the same time called “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” 

And so it goes, Barry Manilow writes the songs the whole world sing, but not with dogs in mind. 

6. Your bark is worse than your bite

This refers to someone who is all talk, very little action; someone who talks a good (often loud) game but can’t substantiate or back it up. So who first barked but couldn’t bite (besides my first Labrador Retriever, who let us know when a leaf blew outside)? Some scholars believe the first notation of record for this phrase was in a 17th-century paper, “1663 Lauderd, Papers I,” wherein it was written, “It is intended that that letter shall be a great bark if not a byt.”

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7. Let sleeping dogs lie

Don’t cause or do something to make trouble, nor wake the beast within, right? As a metaphor, yes. The origins of this idiom can be traced to famed Canterbury Tales author, Geoffrey Chaucer. He wrote in Troylus and Crisedye (1374), “It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake.”

8. Sick as a dog

This is one phrase that drives me batty, truly. Why is a dog the sickest? Argh. Some theories claim this simile goes back to the 17th century, when dogs ate just about anything (many still do), and such an unsettled diet would cause dogs to become ill. According to the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms, the saying goes back to the 1500s. Either way, feeling quite under the weather is generally associated with being as sick as our canine friends. 

9. Raining cats and dogs

As for this meteorological entry, a 1651 collection of poems by Henry Vaughan referenced a roof that was secure against “dogs and cats rained in shower.” But why cats and dogs at all? One theory points to Odin, Norse god of storms, often depicted with dogs and wolves with reference to wind. Some say cata doxa, Greek for “contrary to experience or belief” is a possible reference to raining very hard. Certainly, in my dog’s world, if it rained marrow bones, the forecast would be bright and sunny in his eyes.

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Dog in rain by Shutterstock.com.

10. Who let the dogs out

A canine-inspired song list would not be complete without this thumpa-thumpa chair dance-inducing Baha Men hit. Animal Planet spawned a series title from the song featuring the skateboarding bulldog sensation, Tillman, and pals. Double-dog dare you to attend any sort of canine expo and not hear this song played. 

Got a favorite dog-themed quote or song? Let us know in the comments!

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