(I’m on a roll with this dog thang, so I thought I’d go on until bitten in the leg or otherwise stopped)

As non-gender-specific Human’s best friend, dogs have understandably inspired much proverbial wisdom and colourful phrases down the ages and in many languages.

Sometimes a doggy thought expressed in English in one way is expressed (technically ‘lexicalised’) differently in another European language. I was reminded of this truism when a Bulgarian character in a radio soap (‘The Archers’) asked what ‘her bark is worse than her bite’ means.

The Spanish equivalent that I’ve occasionally heard used is ‘perro que ladra no muerde’ [literally ‘dog that barks, doesn’t bite’, the omission of the article in Spanish arguably giving the phrase a sort of epigrammatic, emphatic, gnomic quality]. You use it as a comment on someone’s personality, meaning, as you will already have worked out, that ‘their bark is worse than their bite’.

(As it happens, the exact same syntax applies to the French and Italian equivalents: chien qui aboie ne mort pas and can che abbaia non morde.)

At this point, it’s worth defining what a ‘proverb’ is: according to the Oxford Online Dictionary, it is ‘A short, well-known pithy saying, stating a general truth or piece of advice.’ To my mind, ‘his bark is worse than his bite‘ is a catchphrase, not a proverb, since it can inflect (his/her/their/your) etc. But these are quibbles.

It turns out that there is an English proverb with the ‘same meaning’: A barking dog never bites. It is just far less common than the alternative already mentioned, which most English speakers will recognise and – as occasion demands – use.

Proverbs tend not to be that well represented in written corpora; even so, for example, worse than…bite’ crops up 163 times in the Oxford English Corpus (July 2017) compared to the other’s…well…just twice.

One of those is in a passage where dog tropes are part of the narrative style (see 1 below for a longer extract), while the other is attributed to an altogether different language: ‘There’s a saying in Syria: a barking dog never bites,” said Adnan Diab, a Syrian teacher living in Lebanon.’

In contrast, ‘X’s bark is worse than their bite’ (oh, the lengths one has to go to to be gender-neutral) is so well established that it readily lends itself to punning, as the following example and the one at 2 below show.

My favorite Gary Ingle story is about the piano teacher who taught her cocker spaniel how to play all fifteen two-part Inventions of J.S. Bach. The dog’s Bach was worse than his bite. American Music Teacher, 2015

Although a barking dog never bites will NOT trip readily of most people’s tongues, it goes back a long way, according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (CODP), which gives a thirteenth-century French example: ciascuns chiens qui abaie ne mort pas.

The Trésor de la langue française (a sort of French OED) suggests that that ancient fomulation is still valid in the form chien qui aboie ne mort pas (note the omission of any article before chien, similarly to the Spanish version).

The CODP also furnishes an entertaining 1980 quotation, from the 1 May Daily Torygraph:

A canvassing candidate came to a house where there was an Alsatian who [NB] barked ferociously. His agent said: “Just go in. Don’t you know the proverb ‘A barking dog never bites’?” “Yes,” said the candidate, “I know the proverb, you know the proverb, but does the dog know the proverb?”’

Finally, German has the exact equivalent of the English Hunde, die bellen, beißen nicht [dogs that bark don’t bite] whereas Italian can che abbaia non morde has the gnomic brevity of the Spanish and French, and is elegantly translated by Google as ‘Can that barks does not bite’.  Which comes from which? Or is there an underlying Latin source? [These are purely rhetorical questions.]


1 ‘Some might say election season turns into a dog-eat-dog political world, with candidates performing dog-and-pony shows. And while some would point out that a barking dog never bites, others would agree that the whole thing has gone to the dogs.’ Cincinnati.com, 2012.

2 This extract refers to a hot dog eating competition as reported in the New York Post in 2007. Yuck and double yuck!

In a record-shattering wiener war yesterday, Joey Chestnut downed 66 Nathan’s hot dogs, besting six-time defending champ Takeru Kobayashi ‘s 63. Chestnut reclaimed the Mustard Yellow Belt for the United States by scarfing down a total of 20,394 calories at the annual Nathan’s hot-dog eating contest in Coney Island.Despite a jaw injury that nearly prevented him from competing, Kobayashi stayed neck and neck with Chestnut until the end of the 12 -minute battle when his barf [sc. vomit] proved worse than his bite.

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