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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: The Animal Kingdom, Part 2 - It's a Dog's Life

The use of the word "dog" in our everyday language is more popular than most of us realize, but its use in the military is even more common. Here we will look at such phrases as "dog watch" and "dog fight," but we will make a lengthy examination of the phrase "raining cats and dogs" to, hopefully, put that controversy to rest once and for all . . . or maybe not.


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In this second of a two-part series of "animal" articles featuring man's best friend, we will look at the word itself. Dog. (Yes, backwards it spells God . . . and some dogs seem to take on the air of "god of the house.") If this creature, considered an accessory of the very rich, a necessary evil of the hunter, and (sorry to offend anyone here) a culinary morsel, why would it also be used as an epithet for a homely woman or other negatively-described items (in publishing: a book, in entertainment: a movie, in real estate: an unsold house, etc.)? This is a much more recent use of the word "dog" than those mentioned last month. It is from the term "dogfaces" and dates back to the about World War II. It is suspected that the term is from soldier slang and initially may have been applied to fellow soldiers, not women (Morris & Morris, p. 183).

Let's stay on the subject of the military. They seem particularly fond of interspersing man's best friend with their language: "dogwatch," "dog tags," "dog soldiers," and "dogfighting."

Dogwatch (also given as "dog watch" - two words) seems to raise some controversy in its origin. One source says that this short period of time in which a sailor is standing watch is similar to the short periods of rest that a watchdog would get when expected to be one duty (Funk, Horsefeathers, p. 205). Others disagree, believing that the word "dog" was once either "dodge" or "dock." The actual time frame is the four hours between 4:00 and 8:00 pm, split into two periods of two hours each (first and second dog watches). Its first recorded use was in 1700 and may have originally been called dodge watch, maybe because the time is split so no two are serving in the same time period on consecutive days, thereby "dodging" that duty (Hendrickson, p. 210). The third suggestion is that the phrase had originally been "docked watch," meaning that the watch was shortened (four hours being the standard period of time for one to stand as sentry). Over time, the slurring of the word made it "dog," more logical to those who were unfamiliar with the use of "dock" in this context (Morris & Morris, p. 184).

We can get through "dog tags" rather quickly as the explanation seems fairly obvious. The resemblance of the soldier's identification tag to the license worn on the collars of our domestic pets is hard to ignore. While those facing combat wore some sort of identification back into at least the Civil War, in America, the tags were not considered a mandatory part of military uniforms until World War I (Hendrickson, p. 210).

I remember watching Westerns on television that talked of "dog soldiers." I had thought they were some unusual branch of the service, but recently learned that that is the term used to describe bands of maverick Indians from various tribes throughout the West. Originally, it referred only to warriors of the Cheyenne Nation, but has since branched out to other tribes, applying to those who have been outlawed by their own people and often including warriors of different tribes (Hendrickson, p. 209). Why "dog"? Perhaps because it is not unusual for dogs with no apparent owners to find each other and band together, but that's just my guess.

Who can forget Charles Schulz's Snoopy, the World War I Ace, atop his doghouse and engaged in a "dogfight"? The term did not originate with the cartoon character, but has been in use for war after war. Some call any physical fight, especially the violent ones, a "dogfight" (Glazier, p. 635), but the term as applied here is in reference to the air fights, engaged in by two or more planes (p. 328). Why "dog"? Again, it seems to be an unfair use of Fido, but maybe it comes from the viciousness of dogs when they fight (literal dog fighting is, of course, against the law, largely because of its brutality [Quinon, p. 143]). With the canine references so plentiful throughout military parlance, perhaps this term is properly used in this context.

When the fighting is going on, it is hoped that the weather will be clear enough to see the enemy, as opposed to "raining cats and dogs." The image is firmly in my head from childhood as my mother often called the worst storms to be of this ilk. The explanations are many: some say that it comes from an obscure French word for waterfall: catadoupe (Holt, p. 208). Others subscribe to the notion that in the 17th Century, England experienced such torrential rains that the gutters of the city were clogged with all sorts of refuse, including dead animals, such as the towns-folks' pets (Hendrickson, p. 565). Another explanation is that the thunder and lightning that accompanies such a horrendous downpour sounds much like cats and dogs in their legendary fights (Funk, Hog on Ice, p. 37). Still others believe it is a variation on a phrase from Jonathan Swift in his 1783's Polite Conversation, in which his character talks about such a rain. This dates back to about 1652 in the Richard Brome play The City Witte where a line includes the phrase "and it shall rain; Dogs and Polecats, and so forth" (translated from Latin) (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, p. 184). If that isn't enough to confuse you, here is yet another interpretation: during the Dark Ages, there was much popular belief that certain animals, including cats and dogs, possessed magical powers. Cats were believed by sailors to have influence over storms, and dogs and wolves are ancient symbols of wind (relating to the Norse god Odin, governing storm and wind). Result: a violent storm is connected to our common household pets (Morris & Morris, p. 485). Finally, I received an email many years ago (sorry, citation is lost on this one) explaining that the term originated with the practice of keeping one's household pets on the thatched roof (yes, that makes perfect sense) and, when the rains came in heavy, the roof would not be able to hold back the downpour, letting the torrents into the house, carrying with them the dogs and cats formerly minding their own business on top of the house (we're back to Snoopy again). I think we can discount that one.

Doggone it, there are a lot of phrases that rely on our pups to carry the meaning across. Oh, and FYI, "doggone" is not a euphemism for "g_d_," it is, instead, a shortening of "dog on it." Apparently originating in England, it was used as an oath, similar to "a pox on it" or "a curse on it." Again, our poor pooch's name is used in vain (Funk, Horsefeathers, p. 22).

My suggestion: please don't take this article as dogma (from the Latin dogma, meaning "philosophical tenet" [Barnhart, p. 294]); it is just what I have been able to dig up so far. Regardless of whether you are a "dog" person or a "cat" person, the use of these words in our language cannot be denied. We'll give equal time to our feline friends next time. Meanwhile, I wish you the best in your dogged (origin: the stubborn way dogs will pull on the leash [Morris & Morris, p. 183]) pursuit of your ancestors.


Barnhart, Robert K., Ed. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers, 2003.

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.

Funk, Charles Earle. Horsefeathers & Other Curious Words. New York: Harper & Row, 1958, 1986

Glazier, Stephen. Random House Webster's Word Menu. New York: Random House, 1992.

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

Holt, Alfred H. Phrase and Word Origins: A Study of Familiar Expressions, Rev. Ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1961.

Morris, William, & Mary Morris. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Quinion, Michael. Gallimaufry: A Hodgepodge of Our Vanishing Vocabulary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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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