Monday, August 3, 2009
By Julia Williams
You’ve probably heard the phrase “The Dog Days of Summer,” but do you know what it means and where it originated? It got me thinking about some of the other popular dog-related phrases, and I decided to do some research. I discovered there are literally hundreds of phrases with the word “dog” or “cat” in them. Here are just a few that relate to dogs, with theories on their origins collected from various web sites.
“The Dog Days of Summer" refers to the hottest, most sultry days of summer, between July and August. The term was used by the Greeks as well as the ancient Romans who called these days caniculares dies (days of the dogs) after Sirius (the "Dog Star"), which is the brightest star in the heavens besides the sun. During the Dog Days of Summer, Sirius and the sun are said to rise and set at around the same time. Many people believe the phrase is in reference to the noticeable lethargy of domesticated canines on hot days, i.e., being “dog tired.”
“Hush Puppies” are little balls of seasoned, deep-fried dough (usually made with corn meal), served primarily in the South. The most widely accepted origin is that people cooking outdoors would feed a few of these to their dog to keep them quiet while the humans were eating. Whether this occurred at a barbecue or a hunters’ camp depends upon who is telling the story.
“Hair of the Dog” means a small measure of alcohol, intended to cure a hangover. The full version of this phrase is actually “the hair of the dog that bit me,” which gives a clue to its origin. The phrase refers to a medieval belief that when someone was bitten by a rabid dog, a cure could be made by rubbing some of the same dog's hair into the infected wound. (Um, okay…you first.)
“It’s Raining Cats and Dogs” means that it’s raining heavily. This phrase has no definitive origin, but no shortage of theories. One supposed origin is drawn from mythology. Dogs and wolves were attendants to Odin (the god of storms) and sailors associated them with rain. Witches are said to have flown in the form of cats, but of course there’s no evidence to support this notion.
Another widely repeated theory claims that in early 17th-century London cats and dogs were washed from roofs during heavy rain and fell on passersby. Cats supposedly hunted mice on the rooftops, but what the dogs were doing up there is anybody’s guess. One thing is certain– the phrase doesn’t refer to an actual incident where cats and dogs fell from the sky.
“Sick as a dog” means extremely sick, especially from a stomach malady. Although this is probably the most well-known of all dog-related phrases and dates back to the 17th century, the origin is unknown. It is likely no more than an attempt to give force to the statement of feeling ill, but why “dog” was used rather than another animal is a mystery. Some theorize it was because dogs have a reputation for eating unsavory things, and they often vomit as a result (ewww).
“It’s a Dog’s Life” means a wretchedly unhappy existence; i.e., "life is a dog.” The origins of this phrase are unclear, but the first recorded usage was in the sixteenth century, referring to “a life of misery.” Presumably, it came about because dogs used to work for their food, doing such things as pulling milk carts. But in the under-50 age group, “It’s a Dog’s Life” means that you have it easy, with others catering to your every need. How this got turned around to mean the opposite of the original phrase is a mystery.
I hope you enjoyed this brief look at the origins of dog-related phrases. I would be “in the doghouse” with my three felines if I didn’t give equal space to the origins of cat-related phrases. So, in my next article I will cover some of those, including “Catbird Seat” and “The Cat’s Meow.”
Read more articles by Julia Williams