It was National Dog Day the other day (26 August), which set me thinking about all the many phrases into which our canine friends nuzzle their way.
Actually, I say ‘canine friends’ somewhat tongue in cheek, as I’m rather ambivalent – not to say cynical1 – about the whole mutt race. On the one hand, I’ve never owned one (though I have owned three cats); I’ve been bitten – well, ‘nipped’ would be more accurate – twice (both times by Alsatians/German shepherds2); I can’t abide incessant barking or yapping; and the number of times I’ve had to scrape doggy doo out of my corrugated soles does not endear the little darlings to me (though, of course, I recognise that is their owners’ fault, not theirs.)
On the other hand – and this must be genetic in humans and instinctive – when I see one, the urge to pat/stroke/caress is almost overwhelming – as is the need to talk in that kind of potentially shaming canine baby talk people automatically adopt (‘Who’s a clever boy, then?’).
When I see cute pictures of pooches I gurgle. When our neighbour’s cockapoo (I ask you! Whoever dreamt up that portmanteau had cloth ears) aka ‘Hector’ leaps into our garden and has to be scooped up and returned home, he always spreads a broad grin across my wizened fizzog, because he is, frankly, completely mental and absolutely adorable.
Clearly, some kind of therapy is required.
‘A dog is a dog is a dog’ Gertrude Stein might have said. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) seems to disagree, since it gives the noun dog no fewer than…down, boy, wait for it…88 ‘senses’ i.e. different meanings, and 166 subentries (many of which are the proverbs and phrases I’ll be coming on to).
And dog is also one of those mysterious OED words that have the experts staring into the void: ’ Origin: Of unknown origin. Etymology: Origin unknown.’
I digress ‘majorly’.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world
…is a bit of a cliché. Where does it come from? The first relevant quotation in the OED is from a 5 August 1794 headline in the Gazette of the United States: ‘Dog eat dog’. The next quotation (1822) is from a British source, and then The Times of 30 December 1854 has:
‘It was dog eat dog—tit for tat… the customers cheated us in their fabrics; we cheated the customers with our goods.’
But why should a dog eat another dog? Have you ever seen it happening? Have you heard about it? Me neither. Yes, some barbaric people (used to) organise dog fights, but the losing hound dies or is slaughtered, not eaten.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world and variants, in fact, echo an earlier proverb that comes all the way from Latin. That proverb, nowadays less common than its pup, is ‘dog does not eat dog’ which comes from the Latin grammarian Varro’s canis caninam non est3, literally ‘dog dog’s flesh not eats’.
This is first recorded by the OED from the 1543 anti-Catholic diatribe The Huntyng & Fyndyng out of the Romishe Fox sig. Aiiv by the cleric and naturalist W. Turner (the Dictionary of National Biography opines that ‘Turner’s exposition of protestant teachings alternates with sometimes scurrilous sexual imagery and coarsely textured abuse’):
That the prouerb may haue a place on dog will not eat of an other dogges fleshe nether will on wolf eat of an other.
Shakespeare played with the idea in Troilus and Cressida ‘One bear will not bite another, and wherefore should one bastard?’ (v. vii. 19)
And Charles Kingsley (he of The Water Babies4) used the canonical form in Hereward the Wake, which I quote here in case it comes in handy for the British team during Brexit negotiations:
‘Dog does not eat dog, and it is hard to be robbed by an Englishman, after being robbed a dozen times by the French.’ (II. xi)
(Hereward the Wake led local resistance in the Fens to the invading Normans [i.e. ‘French’].)
It’s a doggy dog world
Now, the idea of mutts eating one another must have struck some cynophiles as so bizarre and inconceivable that they had to eggcornize it to ‘it’s a doggy dog world’, as recorded in the eggcorns database (the hyperlinks there to sources are dead, btw) and as it pops up in Google Ngrams.
e.g. ‘Americans are always in a rush, always looking at the clock, never waiting patiently. It’s a doggy dog world out there.’
The mechanism for the eggcorn is easy to understand, as the database points out: it’s t/d deletion (the ‘t’ of eat), which also accounts for other eggcorns such as *coal-hearted and *bran-new. What I can’t quite grasp is what kind of world a doggy dog one is, in the perception of the eggcornizers.
1 Ultimately from the Greek word for dog, κύων, κυνός (kyōn, kynos) via κυνικός (kynikos) ‘dog-like, currish, churlish’, via Latin cynicus, with possibly some influence of French.
2 What is it with me and Guatemalan Alsatians? The first bite was administered to me as a child in Guatemala; the second as an adult in Argentina by the Guatemalan ambassador’s dog, no less.
3 That est, btw, has nothing to do with the 3rd person singular of the verb ‘to be’ esse, meaning ‘is’, as in i.e. ‘id est’; it is an archaic form of the verb edĕre, ‘to eat’, from which, ultimately, comes English edible.
4 Inevitably, sometimes described as The Water Babes, the which title could give rise to all sorts of erotic imaginings if one is that way inclined.