Words have fascinated me since childhood. The stranger and more unfathomable they seem, the more interesting they are, both philosophically and aesthetically. Etymology, the study of the origins and roots of terms and phrases, is the word that best describes the pursuit of this passion. Writing for Dogster offers me the perfect opportunity to explore common idioms that relate specifically to dogs. Let’s get started!
The basic concept behind “hair of the dog” is similar to that of vaccination. It was once thought that in order to effectively heal a dog bite, particularly from a dog with rabies, that some of that dog’s hair should be applied to the wound. Ask anyone these days about the origin of the phrase “hair of the dog,” or “hair of the dog that bit you,” and they’ll tell you it relates to a hangover cure. The idea is that one can lessen the effects of a hangover by starting the day with more alcohol. Hangover symptoms are caused by dehydration, so time and fluids are always going to be more effective than more alcohol.
The idiom “dog days,” or “dog days of summer,” is another one with ancient origins. The Ancient Egyptian new year began with the rise of the Nile in June, when Sirius, the “Dog Star,” would appear just before sunrise. The Ancient Greeks and Romans thought that the intense heat of the dog days was produced by the joint powers of Sirius and the sun. They also linked the period between July and August with a propensity toward illness and fatigue. If you have a dog that spends a lot of time outside during the dog days, you may notice her finding the coolest possible spot and being still.
“Wag the dog” and the “tail wagging the dog” are idioms we’ve all heard, but what do they mean? They are similar to “putting the cart before the horse” or “not seeing the forest for the trees.” To “wag the dog” basically means focusing so intensely on a minor issue that we fail to address ones of greater import. Dealing with confused priorities, to wag the dog can also mean to do this on purpose. As an intentional strategy, letting a secondary item dominate discussion where something else should clearly take precedence is a case of the tail wagging the dog.
Shaggy dog stories are joke stories. They raise the expectations we have about jokes, while deflating them repeatedly. They may simply ramble, contain elements unrelated to the joke’s supposed point, or end with an anticlimax or purposefully unfunny punchline. A shaggy dog story can also be the kind of joke that only the teller finds hilarious, or one told among friends where the humor derives more from familiarity than from content. In contemporary media, long-running television shows or movie franchises that decline in quality over time, with anticlimatic or disappointing endings, can also be considered shaggy dog stories.
“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is an English-language pangram, meaning that it employs every letter in the alphabet at least once. Its definitive origin is difficult to place, but the first published mention seems to be in an educational journal from Michigan in the spring of 1885. By that point, “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” was already widely being used in schools for handwriting practice and at printing presses to test typesetting. These days, you’re likely to see it when examining font faces in your favorite word-processing program.
Another phrase that traces its meaning to the late 1800s, a dog and pony show originally referred to popular traveling entertainments in America. Trained animals, dogs and ponies in particular, would perform tricks and other feats of skill to the delight of paying customers. In modern usage, “dog and pony show” has a negative connotation, referring to any kind of presentation — from the business world to the scholastic one — that involves a great deal of hype and flair, or an ostentatious display, but little substance.
“Every dog has its day” probably needs little explanation. It simply means that, regardless of circumstances, everyone gets an opportunity to shine or find success. It was most famously rendered as a mic-drop moment by Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Act 5, Scene 1, when the Danish prince says, “Let Hercules himself do what he may, / The cat will mew, and dog will have his day,” before exiting the stage. The phrase was already in common use at least 50 years earlier, as an English translation of Erasmus’s Proverbs from 1545 contains the variant, “A dogge hath a day.”
If you have a treeing dog, as I do, or a dog from any of the traditional hunting breeds, the meaning of this common dog idiom is plain. Confusion can happen even with the best tracking dogs, and “barking up the wrong tree” simply means putting a great deal of effort into a failed enterprise. The earliest mention of “barking up the wrong tree” I encountered in my research was in Westward Ho!, a novel by American author James Kirke Paulding, who later served as Secretary of the Navy.
As dogs have been intimate companions of humans time out of mind, it’s unsurprising that the origins of some of these sayings about dogs are lost to the ages. Some are traceable to classical antiquity, while others still have gained currency and traction only during our lifetimes. What are your favorite dog-related idioms, sayings, or bits of folk wisdom?
Read more by Melvin Peña on Dogster:
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.