An idiom is a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words. “Idiom” is really just a fancy word for a “figure of speech” or “something that grandma liked to say.” These types of phrases faithfully express the rich and fascinating layers of the English language. But when you absolutely must convey the epitome of absurdity, be sure to use a dog idiom. It will make you happier than a dog with two tails!
The true stories behind certain idioms remain a complete mystery, but that will never stop friends, in-laws, and know-it-alls from fighting like cats and dogs over those enigmatic derivations.
Time and again, it is during those living room spats when we experience another “back formation” that was invented despite being implausible or anachronistic. And that dog just won’t hunt.
Thanks to the internet, we finally have websites that provide citations to prove the origins of idioms. However, some of these conceptions remain contested while other colloquialisms have been in common use though no one bothered to write them down. The bottom line is that there’s just too much wiggle room in the history of the universe to really agree on anything.
As luck would have it, dog idioms tend to be straightforward (at least to dog owners) and rarely propound perplexity. Even so, you may be surprised at how the usage for some of these intriguing idioms were established.
Dog days – The ancient Romans noticed that the Greeks noticed that the hottest days of the year (late July and early August) coincided with the appearance of Sirius the Dog Star. It was once believed that this star supplied the heat of the day. Canicular means “pertaining to Sirius,” so “dog days” are also called Canicular days. This was first referred to (in English) in John de Trevisa’s work, Bartholomeus De proprietatibus rerum in 1398: “In the mydle of the monthe Iulius the Canicular dayes begyn.” Note: this idiom only works in the Northern Hemisphere.
The hair of the dog that bit me – The source of this supposed hangover cure derives from the medieval belief that, when bitten by a rabid dog, a cure could be made by applying the same dog’s hair to the infected wound. “Hair of the dog” is unusual in that the figurative version is recorded before any known examples of the literal meaning. John Heywood, in A Dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe tongue (1546), uses the adage with a reference to drinking: “I pray thee let me and my fellow have a hair of the dog that bit us last night. And bitten were we both to the brain aright. We saw each other drunk in the good ale glass.”
It isn’t until the eighteenth century that the literal use of dogs’ hair to cure bite wounds is recorded in print. Robert James alludes to the method in A Treatise on Canine Madness (1760): “The hair of the dog that gave the wound is advised as an application to the part injured.”
Raining cats and dogs – No one knows the exact basis of this seventeenth century English axiom, but it did NOT stem from animals falling from the sky.
Jonathan Swift described the streets being awash with the bodies of animals in his satirical poem A Description of a City Shower, first published in the 1710 collection of the Tatler magazine. The reference to place-names in Swift’s poem make it clear that the watercourse he was referring to was the River Fleet. Regardless, there’s no special reason to connect the sight of animals in the Fleet with rain.
It has also been suggested that cats and dogs were washed from roofs during heavy weather. This widely repeated tale acquired a new lease on life with the e-mail message “Life in the 1500s,” which began circulating in 1999. In order to believe this e-rumor, we would have to admit that dogs lived in thatched roofs, which, of course, they didn’t. Moreover, for dogs to have slipped off when it rained, they would have needed to be sitting on the outside of the thatch (hardly the place to shelter from bad weather).
The first appearance of the currently used version is in Jonathan Swift’s A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation (1738): “I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs.” Whether Swift devised “raining cats and dogs” and whether he meant that to refer to animals being washed through the streets in heavy weather is entirely uncertain.
The well-known hostility between cats and dogs might be a good metaphor for stormy weather. Therefore, the use of “cats and dogs” serves to accentuate the speech so that the expression means “raining in a bad way.” But alas, what was once in the mind of whoever invented this idiom is now lost to us.
Every dog has its day – This implies that every person has a period of power or influence. This phrase is recorded as being first stated by Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) in a letter to her brother and in response to his request for a picture of her. She wrote: “Notwithstanding, as a dog hath a day, so may I perchance have time to declare it in deeds.”
This phrase is a rarity since it was first articulated by a queen. The letter was published by John Strype in Ecclesiastical Memorials in 1550. Skeptics will argue that Elizabeth was merely quoting an already well-known proverb, although no record of it has been found that pre-dates her writing it down.
In 1603, Shakespeare used this phrase in Hamlet: “Let Hercules himself do what he may, the cat will mew and dog will have his day.”
Hotdogging – The Free Dictionary’s secondary definition of hot dog is “one who performs showy, often dangerous stunts, as in skiing or surfing.” Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing describes hotdogging as a “quick and flashy style of surfing, generally limited to small waves.” Hotdogging was a popular term in the 1950s (and 1960s) used to describe a style of surfing that included moves like the head dip, the spinner, Mickey Munoz’s Quasimodo, and the fin-first takeoff.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks – The origin of this expression comes from the mid-1500s, and is one of the oldest idioms in English. The original use of the phrase appears in a book titled The Boke of Husbandry by John Fitzherbert (1534): “and a shepherd must teach his dog to bark, or run, or leave when he would have him; or else he is not a cunning shepherd. The dog must learn it when he is a welp, or else it will not be: for it is hard to make an old dog stop.”
The more modern version of the saying appeared in print in 1721 in the book Divers Proverbs authored by Nathan Baily: “An old dog will learn no tricks.”
Thanks to our cunning canines, there are countless colorful catchphrases to enjoy each day. I suppose some sayings might not qualify as idioms since they are indirect comparisons. Quirky quips such as “dog-eared,” “dog and pony show,” or “puppy dog eyes” are metaphors.
Then there’s “mean as a junkyard dog,” which, technically, is a simile? I don’t know. Perhaps we just let sleeping dogs lie before the tail starts wagging the dog around here. All you REALLY need to know is that a dog is a man’s best friend.
The Medieval, Renaissance, and Industrial era citations and quotations were provided by my very favorite “origins of phrases” website:
Featured photo – Duncan is barking up the wrong tree!