The dog: man’s best friend?

By Bernadette Paton, OED

The history of man’s relationship with the domesticated carnivorous mammal Canis familiaris is a long and complex one, and is reflected in the language used across the centuries to describe the dog and its world. The word dog first occurs in Old English, but is less well-attested than the synonymous (and probably more formal and literary) hound, although it may have been common in non-literary and spoken contexts. Unlike hound, which has its origin in early Germanic languages and hence has many cognates in other European languages—German hund, Dutch hond etc.— dog is one of a number of English words for animals (all ending in –g) of obscure origin and without cognates in other European languages (see ‘etymology’); they include hog, stag, pig, and the second element of earwig.

Vicious, ravening, and watchful

Before the eighteenth century, dogs other than the disdained lap-dog were usually kept not as household pets but for hunting, working, or guarding, and the language used to describe them often reflects this. In the oldest proverbs and phrases dogs are rarely depicted as faithful or as man’s best friend, but as vicious, ravening, or watchful. To throw or cast someone to the dogs (from 1556) is to send them to destruction or ruin, as is the later and now more common to go to the dogs (from 1619). Dog-eat-dog (from 1794) describes a situation in which people are willing to harm each other in order to succeed (although curiously it a corruption after Latin canis caninam non est, which asserted the opposite: that dog does not eat dog). Perhaps the most famous of these images of dogs as ravening beasts is the dogs of war of Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar, used to describe the unleashed savagery accompanying conflict. Other phrases reflect the early role of dogs as watchful guardians, like the late medieval proverb to wake a sleeping dog and variants (to stimulate or provoke someone or something not causing a problem), from whence comes the modern let sleeping dogs lie.

In early modern Britain dogs were often regarded as vermin or as the carriers of rabies and other diseases. The fear of rabies-infested dogs is manifested in the phrase a hair of the dog that bit you, recorded from 1546 as an alcoholic drink taken to cure a hangover, and originating in the remedy recommended as a cure for the bite of a rabid dog (now usually shortened to hair of the dog). Given the risks associated with dogs, they were constantly seen as in need of control. Implements for doing this included dog chains (recorded from 1507), dog irons (an iron brace or leash for a dog) and dog leashes (both recorded from 1534), and the curious dog- tongs, a set of large wooden or iron tongs formerly used in England and Wales to expel dogs from church and still used elsewhere. The people charged with keeping dogs out of church with dog tongs were known as dog rappers. Other agents whose job it was to catch, control, tame, or exterminate dogs included dog breakers, dog catchers, dog gelders, dog drivers, dog skinners, dog floggers, and dog whippers. Dog pelters had the job of killing strays in some areas of the United States and nineteenth-century phrases such as ‘he couldn’t be a dog pelter’ alluded to the menial or unpopular nature of their work.

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A (miserable) dog’s life

The many extended and figurative uses of dog are less than complimentary and reflect the negative image traced so far. The word is consistently used as the type of anyone or anything regarded as treacherous or worthless, and has been applied at various times to the devil, anything debased (as dog-Latin, etc.), an informer, a slow or worthless horse, a rakish or sly man, a thing of poor quality, a coin of low value, and an unattractive woman or girl.

It is not surprising, then, to find that at least until the mid-nineteenth century dogs often lived miserable lives, being regularly beaten, hungry, or ill, judging by the compounds that arose over the centuries. These include dog lame, dog lean, dog hunger, dog poor, dog sick, dog tired, and dog weary, the last two a likely outcome of a day of dog work at the dog-wheel.

Phrases and proverbs also attest to the misery of the dog’s life. To be sick as a dog, to lead a dog’s life (or to lead a person a dog’s life), and not fit for a dog (or to not wish something on a dog) indicates what that life typically was. To die a dog’s death was to suffer a disgraceful or miserable end.  One death often doled out to dogs was hanging; the phrase to give a dog a bad name and hang him (used from the late-seventeenth century on) comes from the practice of hanging dogs of bad repute (sometimes, according to some sources, after a rough judicial process). Being now usually shortened to give a dog a bad name, the proverb has been largely robbed of its sinister origins. The public hanging of dogs gave rise to the phrase whose dog is hanging, meaning ‘what’s all the fuss about?’ A dog-hanging remained a regional term in areas as far apart as Essex and Derbyshire for a public fuss, party, or spectacle until well into the twentieth century, long after dog-hangings ceased to be common.

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Modern attitudes: laps, soaps, and shows

Gradually, however, we can trace a change in the language used about dogs. Until the eighteenth century small dogs kept as pets were regarded with some disdain (hence the negative connotations of lap-dog) but they enjoyed luxuries their outdoor counterparts could only dream of. But from the mid-1700s compounds attesting to the dog as a favoured and nurtured pet begin to appear, and they multiply and flourish throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. They include comforts like dog baskets (earliest in 1768 Catal. Household Furniture, ‘A dog-basket and cushion’), dog biscuits (specialized dog treats, from 1823), dog food, dog doctors (first recorded in 1771 Tobias Smollett’s novel Humphry Clinker, ‘A famous dog-doctor was sent for’), dog hospitals (from 1829), and dog soap (first use 1869). The first reference to the dog as ‘man’s best friend’ appears in 1841, at a time when dogs began to be sentimentalized, and to be seen as having, if not souls, then at least personalities and feelings (perhaps because the industrialized city no longer needed them as outdoor working or guard animals, while the rabies vaccination developed in the 1880s reduced the threat they posed).

The lot of dogs in the English-speaking world appears to have improved further in recent times. Early twentieth-century compounds like dog sitter, dog sitting and dognapper, dognapping suggest that at least some of us have come to value our dogs as much as our children—and are prepared to pay hefty sums to have them minded or ransomed. The dog show, attested from 1852, is the ultimate demonstration of this relatively new respect for the dog. The well-fed, well-groomed, and much-prized pets of Crufts (the creation of Charles Alfred Cruft) would have been unrecognized by our—and their own—medieval forebears.

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