Man’s Best Friend: A Look at the Origins of 14 Common Dog Idioms
There’s no stronger bond than the one between a man and his dog. Loyal, affectionate, and ready to jump through hoops to please their owners, humans have domesticated dogs for thousands of years. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise why there are so many dog idioms in today’s conversations. Without a doubt, “man’s best friend” is the most popular expression. It was first used by Frederick the Great, a Prussian king, and it perfectly captures the essence of the relationship between humans and dogs.
However, it’s not the only dog-related idiom—far from that! We’ve been living side-by-side with pups for so long that we use more than a few colloquialisms daily. So, join us, and let’s take a quick look at common dog sayings and their origins. Here goes!
1. Barking Up the Wrong Tree
This well-known idiom is used when someone’s accusing the wrong person or is being misguided into believing a false idea. If you’re told that you’re barking up the wrong tree, it might be wise to reconsider your actions or look at them from a different angle. This saying’s roots go back to the 19th century United States of America. To catch a night animal, hunters’ dogs used to keep watch near trees and bark whenever the prey showed up. However, since dogs can’t see much when it’s dark, they are often mistaken. So, a dog that was quite literally barking up the wrong tree was giving the animal (a raccoon, mostly) a chance to escape.
2. Call Off the Dogs
This next phrase is often heard in detective/action movies when the hero is telling the villain to leave them alone. It can be a police investigation, a hit piece by a journalist, or something else. Calling off the dogs is also commonly used as an urge to stop judging or acting aggressively toward someone. In hunting, when you call off the dogs, you’re letting the animal (or human) go.
3. Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
Learning something new isn’t always easy, especially if you’re getting a bit old. But the idiom is used in a slightly different manner. It describes a person that’s too stubborn, afraid, or lazy to try and do things differently. This phrase has been with us for almost 500 years! It’s mentioned in a 1534 book by Mr. John Fitzherbert called “The Book of Husbandry”.
4. It’s A Dog and Pony Show
Back in the day, outdoor shows were incredibly popular in the US. Circuses used to tour the entire country (especially the rural areas) and often included performances by horses and dogs. These shows were a bit over-the-top to grab the audience’s attention. Today, this idiom perfectly fits fancy ads. Marketing agencies use flashy videos, graphics, and presentations to promote new products and services.
5. It’s Raining Cats and Dogs
Henry Vaughan, a British poet, set the foundation for this idiom in 1651. But it was Jonathan Swift who wrote “it’s raining cats and dogs” in his poem “A Description of a City Shower”. The poem saw the light of day in 1710, and in it, Swift criticized the artificial lives of people living in London. So, what does this expression mean, exactly? Some folks use it when talking about heavy rain. The dogs are the wind, while the cats are the rain. Others refer to Norse mythology and centuries-old superstitions. And in Greek, cata doxa means “contrary to popular belief”. Yes, it’s quite a complex idiom!
6. The Underdog
When a team or an athlete is expected to lose in a competition, they are the underdogs. We’re talking about boxing, tennis, football, and other sports. This word is also used to describe a person that overcomes a challenge despite all odds. In dogfighting, the term “underdog” was first introduced in the late 1880s when talking about a hound that lost a brawl.
The world is a harsh place, and you have to fight to earn your spot—that’s what this idiom represents. You’ll often hear people involved in finances, marketing, and commerce use it. Sometimes, dog-eat-dog has a more severe, violent meaning, like fellow humans being ready to cause each other pain to get to the top. This expression was first mentioned in 1794. And approximately 100 years later, people were using it to describe the rivaling nature of the world. However, it’s actually an “edited” version of a different idiom, “dog does not eat dog” that comes from a Latin proverb. It goes like canis caninam non est and means bad folks see eye to eye/don’t fight each other.
8. Fight Like Cats and Dogs
We’ve all been there: arguing with someone we love or hate for hours and never coming to an agreement. That’s what this idiom stands for. In nature, dogs and cats do, indeed, fight all the time, although canines are usually much stronger and have the upper hand. But do you know where this phrase takes its roots from? In 1611, there was a play at the Globe Theater called “King Cunobelinus”—that’s when it all started.
9. Puppy Love/Eyes
While this idiom might sound a bit childish, when you truly love a person, you will instantly see the appeal. You have puppy love when your emotions are pure. As for the puppy eyes, it’s when we make a cute face and ask for something. Pets and children implement this “killer technique” quite often; grown-ups do it, too, but on a smaller scale. These phrases are found in many different stories, but it’s believed that “puppy love” was first mentioned in 1823.
10. Never Bite the Hand That Feeds You
There are lots of people out there that turn on you instead of being thankful for your kindness. That’s why this phrase is so popular. And it doesn’t necessarily refer to dogs (because a well-trained pup will never hurt his owner) but rather to humans that see kindness as weakness and criticize/betray instead. It was Edmund Burke, an Anglo–Irish philosopher and politician, that used this idiom first (in printed form). It’s derived from the fact that many horses tend to bite your hand while you’re feeding them. This is a counterproductive move for the horse, but it doesn’t stop it from doing that.
11. A Dog With Two Tails
Have you ever been told that you’re acting like a dog with two tails? Relax: what they meant to say is that you’re a joyful person. It’s no secret that dogs like to wag their tails when they’re happy. This phrase dates to the early 19th century when John Mactaggart, an engineer from Scotland, helped Canadians build a bridge between two provinces. When he went back to his hometown, the man wrote a book about his time in Canada and used this phrase.
12. The Tail That Wags the Dog
Sometimes, gigantic industries are controlled by a smaller subsidiary. That’s a great example of a tail wagging the dog. Sometimes, this phrase is used when the roles are reversed, like the financial sector taking control over the country or football clubs dictating their conditions to sports channels. A theatrical play, “Our American Cousin”, included it first in 1858. Almost 150 years later (in 1997, to be exact), “Wag the Dog”, an American political satire/comedy, flipped the phrase and defined it as a meaningless action (performed by the army) to distract the nation from a scandal back home.
13. Better the Head of a Dog Than the Tail of a Lion
We promise that this is the last idiom that involves dogs and tails! So, what does it represent? You’d probably want to be a leader of a small group of people rather than an outsider in a much bigger one, right? That’s exactly what this expression refers to.
14. A Barking Dog Seldom Bites
This popular idiom dates back to 16th-century England. However, long before the British, Quintus Curtius, a famed historian from the Roman Empire, expressed this same idea in his writings. There’s another popular phrase/proverb that puts these two dog-related words together, and it goes like “one’s bark is worse than the bite”. When someone looks or acts more hostile than they truly are, you can use this idiom.
Dogs have been our companions for such a long time that no wonder we’ve created so many idioms about them. These expressions have become an essential part of our language, and we use them without even realizing it. From heavy rain to leadership qualities, these sayings perfectly capture the essence of a situation. So, next time you hear one, remember that behind it stands a long and fascinating history.