A Dozen Ways Dogs have Infiltrated the English Language

Have you ever called in to work saying, “I can’t come in today. I’m sick as a dog?”

Most of us have at one time or another. Do you know where that saying came from? We really don’t know for sure but there are quite a few guesses. One of which is that dogs were host to fleas that carried a variety of diseases, including various plagues, and not only would the dog get sick but, in sharing his fleas, he would enable others to get sick too.

Etymologists (those who study words and their origins) also study the way words and their meanings change over time and those associated with dogs have certainly changed. Sick as a dog, for example, is not used today to insinuate anyone is carrying fleas or will share the plague. Instead, it often refers to someone with a hangover or a stomach upset. Language and how it changes is almost as fascinating as our dogs.

The Origins of Dog

In the 1500s and 1600s, the French used the word dogue, while the Germans and Dutch had the word dogge, but during this time, the English used the word hund to refer to canines. The Old English word docgena or dogga was originally recorded around 1100 or slightly earlier, but rather than apply to all canines, it was the name of a large breed of dog, perhaps a large mastiff. Some etymologists feel that the French, Dutch, German and other similar words originated with or descended from this English word and at some point it began to be used for all canines, or at least all domesticated canines. Keep in mind, though, dog is also used to refer to many male canines other than domesticated ones. Male foxes, for example, are called dogs.

We don’t know exactly when the word dog was first used in the English language to refer to all dogs. It was probably a gradual process that spread and became so common place that it wasn’t worthy at the time of being recorded. However, the word dog quickly spread around the world and not necessarily in positive ways. The dog often referred to a bad throw of the dice and a lucky player was called the dog killer.

We do know that Princess Elizabeth of Great Britain said in 1550, “As a dog may hath a day, so may I perchance have time to declare it in deeds.”

Negative References to Dogs

Although today we think most dogs have a great life, a dog’s life originally referred to the hard life most dogs lived. They were fed scraps or scavenged for food, were treated badly, often lived outside, suffered from parasites and diseases, and often lived short, hard lives. Of course, most people at that time also lived short, hard lives so it wasn’t necessarily that dogs were being abused; it was the way life was. Go to the dogs was known to be used in the early 1600s and this phrase, too, was concerning the species’ hard lives and where they lived.

After a night of partying, people are often told to take a hair of the dog who bit you to cure a hangover. This phrase was known to have been used as early as the mid-1500s. Let sleeping dogs lie is also recorded from that era. A less attractive woman was called a dog in the 1930s and that term can even be heard today. From the 1950s a sexually active man has been called a dog, as in you dog, you.

The dog days of summer, the months when the Dog Star Sirius rises in the nightime sky, is often thought to refer to the heat of summer. During this heat, parasites flourish and cause diseases, standing water goes bad, food spoils, people and dogs both get sick, and the heat can drive both humans and canines crazy.  Dog days came into use in the 1500s, but Sirius the dog star had its name as early as 850BC.

So Many Dog References

When we take a look at the English language, it’s easy to see how intertwined our two species are. Soldiers are often called dogs, as are our aching feet. A man who doesn’t follow the rules or behave himself is often called a dog.

To dog someone refers to the persistence by which a dog can follow a track. This originated, or is recorded, in the early 1500s. Yet in early 1900 American vernacular, to dog it means to be lazy.

In the early 1900s, the term dogfight came into being to describe an aerial battle and it’s kept that meaning through the present. It can also mean any kind of a skirmish. The wars of the early 1900s that introduced dogfight to our language also gave us dog tags. 

Dog collars obviously refer to the collars dogs wear but they are also the name of the stand up collars on some men’s shirts. A dog’s leash is that piece of material that allows a human to control a dog’s actions, but a leash can connect anything to a human. The strap that goes around a surfer’s ankle to keep his surfboard close is also called a leash.

It’s amazing to see how thoroughly our canine friends have infiltrated our lives and our language over the past 1,000 years. Here’s hoping the next thousand years will keep dogs close to us, living better lives, and continuing to infiltrate our language.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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