Man's best friend

Man’s best friend – dog idioms

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What’s in a name?

As the August Silly Season is drawing to a close and everyone is getting ready to head back to the office, classroom, lecture hall or lab, I thought I’d mark the occasion with a light-hearted look at some words, phrases and idioms related to our furry friends. It’s also fitting as this week it’s the seventh birthday of number two office assistant: Bumble Brown. When she was a puppy, one of her favourite games was to try to take the paper out of the printer before I had time to reach for it, and then run off to chew up whatever document I’d been waiting for. These days she’s much more laid back, and prefers to spend her time snoozing in her basket, waiting for the next walk or treat.

Bumble is a cairn terrier, a breed that originates in the Scottish Highlands. Cairns are one of the oldest breeds of terrier, originally bred to hunt rats in ‘cairns’ which are manmade piles of stones, hence the breed name. I was fascinated to come across this OxfordWords blog post about the origins of dog names. It seems that, like cairns, many dog breed names are related to the location the breed originated. Did you know that the family favourite, Labradors, originated in Canada, Rottweilers, from the town of Rottweil in Germany or Dalmatians from a location in former Yugoslavia.

Doggie idioms

There are also lots of phrases and idioms related to dogs.

Let the dog see the rabbit – means to see what is happening, or see something clearly. The phrase originates from coursing, hunting rabbits with dogs, usually greyhounds a breed that hunts by sight.

Let sleeping dogs lie – avoid interfering. My research suggested this phrase dates to as early as the thirteenth century and was a warning not to wake up sleeping watchdogs.

As fit as a butcher’s dog – very fit; on the basis that the butcher’s dog has a diet of scraps of meat.

Every dog has its day – everyone will get an opportunity. This phrase appears in both Shakespeare’s Hamlet, ‘The cat will mew and dog will have his day’ and also Erasmus’ Proverbs.

Hair of the dog – this refers to the questionable practice of curing the ‘morning after’ hangover with another alcoholic drink. I was fascinated to discover that the name originates from the belief that it was necessary to heal a dog bite by applying some of the dog’s hair to the wound.

Man’s best friend

Man’s best friend appears in many more of our everyday idioms and colloquial phrases, due to the long association between man and animal. However, dogs didn’t always have the favoured status that many pets do today. OED provides a fascinating history of the historic development of dog-related words. The phrase ‘man’s best friend’ is relatively recent, the first recorded references being in 1789 by Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, and slightly earlier in 1746 the French philosopher Voltaire said, “all the animals it is the most faithful : it is the best friend man can have”. I think all dog-lovers would agree with those words.

Man's best friend
Man’s (and my) best friend