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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: The Animal Kingdom, Part 1 - Going to the Dogs

Do feel as if you are "living a dog's life"? That things are "going to the dogs"? These, and other dog phrases, are the subject of this essay, which explores the commonality of inserting "man's best friend" into the oddest places in conversation.


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Twelve years ago, my beloved dog Buddy showed up in my front yard, demanding to be adopted. It took a little convincing (after all, I was a "cat person"), but his demeanor, sad eyes, and amazing persistence won me over. In our eleven years together (we lost him in 2011, eleven years and three days after he arrived), he proved himself by helping to find ancestor headstones; standing watch while I worked feverishly to meet a writing deadline; allowing to be petted as I spent late night hours searching for my forebears on websites that, thankfully, do not close at 9:00 pm; and calmly listening to me practice classes I was to teach (needing only to be encouraged to stay awake by a nearly endless supply of cookies I kept on hand). So when I hear that something has "gone to the dogs" (meaning that it is in a shambles or otherwise useless), I have to wonder: how on earth could that be a bad thing? My life went to my dog within about an hour of his claiming us as "his people"!

Using "dog" terminology for various aspects of life has become common. Have you ever wondered about the "dog" phrases? Here we shall examine a few of them. Let's begin with the one that most perplexes me: "gone to the dogs." While we consider dogs, "man's best friend," our ancestors, particularly in non-North American countries, were not at all as enamored by them. A "dog's life" was nothing to be envied (they didn't know my Buddy!): dogs were kept outside and, except those used as a food supply, were considered a reluctant necessity. The dogs were working creatures that were used in hunting escapades. Their food was whatever was left over (otherwise they would be costly, as well), and that paltry little was thrown to where they lived, outside, in pens or crude shelters. The dog pack had to fight for what food they received and it was often "survival of the fittest," bringing about the phrase "dog eat dog" - just staying alive was a struggle for them, and we often hear people complaining about life today in those same terms (Titelman, p. 53). The dog that survives, possibly even triumphing, is the one who is able to conquer all the others, rising as the "Alpha" in the pack and, possibly, turning on the master - "biting the hand (and more) that feeds him." Should he literally win his freedom, it is said that he has finally had "his day." Dating back to at least the time of Shakespeare ("Hamlet"), we continue with that phrase: "every dog has his day" (Funk, "Heavens," p. 40). (Of course, if the dog is one who has been eaten by the Alpha, the dead creature is no longer eligible to have his day; and the one who has achieved that goal should not expect to rest on his laurels: there will always be another to challenge the title.)

No one envied the dogs' carefree lifestyle! So if a person was said to have "gone to the dogs," it simply meant that he or she was existing much as the dogs did: on the sheer generosity (such as it was) of those in superior positions. Similarly, "leading a dog's life" meant that every moment was a struggle for survival and "to die like a dog" was to expire in a shameful and miserable manner (Hendrickson, p. 209). It's no wonder that a derogatory comment about another person was "dirty dog," yet I have heard that phrase, jokingly stated, by one person about another (e.g., on the television show "Cheers," I recall Cliff calling various other characters "you dirty dog, you"; never once meaning it as anything but a compliment).

This brings us to the location where the dog is kept: the doghouse. The dog who has taken it upon himself to wander too much (perhaps wreaking havoc in the neighbor's chicken yard or becoming too amorous with the bitch across the way) may become relegated to that terrible of places. Likewise, a person (usually a man) who has been a bit too free with his time (spending that, plus the household money, at the alehouse or in other unsavory locations) will say, when he finally returns to home, hearth, and wife, that he is "in the doghouse." An earlier phrase, "gay dog," referring to the man who found most of his enjoyment away from his own lair, is suspected of spawning the "in the doghouse" consequence (Funk, "Hog," p. 84).

No doubt, the man (I will continue to be non-politically correct here, if you will excuse me, as the "dog-identified" offender was, in our ancestors' times, usually male) who had spent too much of his time in the pub would find himself suffering, come morning, with what some of my readers may recognize as the hangover. But work would beckon and returning to the bed was not usually an option; so the aching victim, if one could call him that, would seek "the hair of the dog that bit him." This means that the desired tonic was a bit more of that alcoholic beverage that got him into trouble in the first place. Of course, in a good Christian home, his wife was not likely to stock such a remedy, but I digress. The phrase dates back, in written form, to the mid-1500s. The theory is that this cure stems from the practice of using, as part of a poultice on the bite of a mad (rabid) dog, a hair from that same dog. Of course, such an action would not save a victim from demise, should the offending dog have been rabid, any more than another drink of the same variety would stave off the aches of the previous night's bender (Funk, "Hog," p. 78).

From these canine references, once might conclude, then, that the phrase "putting on the dog" originates with the poor and downtrodden. Well, just when we think we have found a trend, we discover that we are sorely mistaken. This curious phrase originated post-1865 (around the end of the Civil War). In post-War America, businesses began to flourish again (many having gotten a boost during the War itself), and people (women in particular) were wont to go out into public and flaunt their (husband's) success. Whether the wives of railroad moguls, land speculators, oil tycoons, or manufacturers, these ladies were enjoying the type of money previously reserved for old aristocracy. No doubt influenced by their sisters over in Europe, where small lapdogs were a common "accessory" when going out for an afternoon, the new American rich decided to follow suit (Garrison, p. 170). Some believe that the dog's own behavior (arched back and dainty stepping) added to the phrase, as some of the women were thought to move likewise (Hendrickson, p. 553). No doubt, the master's hunting dogs, still caged out by the barn, were in wonderment of their cousins' treatment, being allowed in the house and fed a finer fare from the table (but that is just speculation on my part).

So, here we have our favorite creature living in the best and the worst. And so, when the seasons change and it comes mid-summer, we relegate that time period to the pooch as well: "the dog days of summer." I have to admit, that my Buddy was never one for the heat of that time of the year; but neither am I. It is at that time that our pups seem to take extra naps and are less likely to charge after balls thrown as much for the thrower's enjoyment as the fetcher's excitement. But that is not where this term originates. For this genesis, we must look up. For eight weeks in the summer (around 3 July to 11 August), the brightest star in the sky is the "dog star," Sirius. The ancient Romans, whose astrology gives the time period this name ("canicula res dies") believed that the star itself contributed to the heat experienced during this time (Mordock & Korach, p. 9). So, while our canine friends may show us that this is not a time for vigorous activity, they are taking their cue from the Canis Major constellation. Are there more rabid dogs about at that time? Some say that there are (rabid bats coming out of hibernation and biting the unsuspecting, innocent pup?), possibly encouraging the continued use of the term into the 21st Century (Hendrickson, p. 209).

As I sought out these phrases, I discovered more. So many more. I cannot possibly address all the curious dog expressions in this one article, so I will ask you to return next month for another dose of the hair of the dog that bit me to get me into this dogged direction. Did your ancestors keep dogs? Did they put on the dog or use them as work creatures? That may bear some exploration. Hopefully you won't find out that your forebears spent time in the doghouse, lived a dog's life, died like a dog, had a dog-eat-dog existence. Perhaps you will discover your ancestor was like a dog that had his/her day. And I most sincerely hope that the records of your ancestors' pet ownership have not gone to the dogs!


Funk, Charles Earle. "Heavens to Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings." New York: Harper & Row, 1955, 1983.

Funk, Charles Earle. "Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions". New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1948.

Garrison, Webb. "What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases." Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Hendrickson, Robert. "The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & Expanded Ed." New York: Checkmark Books, 1997, 2000.

Mordock, John, & Myron Korach. "Common Phrases and Where they Come from." Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001.

Titelman, Gregory. "America's Popular Sayings: Over 1600 Expressions on Topics from Beauty to Money and Everything in Between." New York: Gramercy Books, 2000.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2012.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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