Sayings about dogs, or dog idioms, have found their way into human conversation for millennia. It’s likely that as long as dogs or their ancestors have been part of our lives, they’ve also been part of our language. The origins of many that are still in use are naturally lost to time.
We’ve already explored eight of the most common, but dogs are so integral to the human experience that naturally there are many more. Let’s explore another set of dog idioms and phrases!
A dog in the manger is someone who hinders access to a resource despite having no practical use for it. It can be traced as far back as the beast fables of Ancient Greece. The simplest version of the story involves a dog perched upon a pile of hay in a manger. A horse approaches to eat it, but is continually rebuffed and repelled by the dog. The dog in the manger is an idiom relating to mean-spirited policies or individuals. Another way of understanding a dog in the manger policy is, “If I can’t have it, no one can.”
Any Bill Murray fan worth her salt will recognize this ad-libbed line from the classic film Ghostbusters (1984). “Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!” Murray’s Dr. Venkman is referring to a scenario of chaos to come and a world turned upside-down.
Of course, the hyperbolic pairing of two species with a reputation for natural antagonism is an ancient one. Perhaps the most recognizable variation is found in the Old Testament book of Isaiah, which prophesies a time when “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them” (Isa. 11:6). It’s certainly funnier in Bill Murray’s formulation.
Well, we know what a dog whistle is, and how its typically high-pitched or ultrasonic frequencies can be used in dog training. So what does “dog-whistle politics” mean? Just as dog whistles are perceptible only to dogs, the saying “dog-whistle politics” refers to specific words or phrases meant to manipulate or grab the attention of particular voters. When deployed by politicians, these words and phrases are intended to provoke negative responses in loyal supporters. The tactic is probably as old as politics itself, but the phrase “dog-whistling” or “dog-whistle politics” only started gaining traction in Australia in the 1990s before entering common usage worldwide.
As it turns out, irrational stigmas against dark-coated animals — dogs and cats — have existed for centuries. The idiom “black dog depression” was common in the correspondence between 18th-century author Samuel Johnson and his circle. In a letter of 1783, Johnson writes that, “When I rise my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking.”
From the ancient world until today, there has been a long-standing association between black dogs and things like ill omens and death. Since dogs tend to follow their humans around, it was inevitable that people who suffered from melancholy or depression, like Johnson in the 18th century, or Winston Churchill in the 20th, should adopt the image of the black dog.
Let’s lighten the mood now with a saying about dogs that people use as a flimsy excuse. When people say, “Excuse me, I’ve got to go see a man about a dog,” it is an easy way out of having to talk to someone. “Going to see a man about a dog” originates in less civilized times, when horse and dog racing were popular and acceptable entertainments. In its original use, this dog idiom was literal; the speaker needed to place a bet before the race began.
In the realm of literature, “going to see a man about a dog” is first attributed to a forgotten Irish-American playwright Dion Boucicault, in his even-less known 1866 play The Flying Scud. Soon, the saying became colloquial, intended to get out of a conversation quickly. Today, the phrase “going to see a man about a dog” is most commonly used as a thinly veiled excuse for a visit to the toilet.
You have to really believe in a product you’re selling if you’re going to “eat your own dog food.” In our euphemism-driven, corporate-speak modern world, the concept is also known as “dogfooding.” Unlike many of these common-parlance dog idioms and sayings, this one actually traces its origins to a marketing campaign for dog food. Lorne Greene, an actor well-loved as the star of Bonanza and Battlestar Galactica, starred in a series of television commercials for Alpo dog food from 1975 until his death in 1987. Greene assured consumers that Alpo was of such high quality, he fed it to his own dogs.
Dogfooding, or eating your own dog food, is now utilized to promote trust between a brand and its consumers. In a recent case of life imitating art, Alison Wiener and Hanna Mandelbaum, owners of Evermore Pet Food, actually did eat their own dog food every day over the course of a month.
What does it mean to “put on the dog”? According to my research, the phrase “putting on the dog” began as 19th-century slang among college students. Specifically, in his 1871 piece Four Years At Yale, author Lyman H. Bagg states that “to put on dog is to make a flashy display.” One source claims that this may have involved dress shirts that had “dog collars.” In modern usage, the meaning is basically unchanged, and relates to getting unusually dressed up or wearing fancier clothes than one is accustomed to.
In these two posts about the origins and meanings of popular sayings about dogs, we’ve chronicled 15 common dog idioms. What are some of your favorites? Are there others you’ve created yourself? Share your dictionary of dog slang in the comments!
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About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a one-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Idris, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.