Could ‘it’s a dog’s life’ be used refer to a pleasant lifestyle rather than a despised, downtrodden one?

It would seem passing strange to me. But somewhere recently I read that the meaning of this idiom seems to be changing (annoyingly, I can’t remember where). And the (to me rebarbative) picture above of dog as girly fashion accessory makes it sound very plausible.

If it is happening, it would be an example of (a)melioration, the linguistic process by which a word sort of moves upmarket, or at least shakes off ‘its lowly-born tag’. The classic example is nice, which has moved from meaning ‘silly’ or ‘ignorant’, to meaning, erm, ‘nice’.

If you come across ‘a dog’s life’ being used positively, do please let me know.


Now, dogs are not proverbially associated with the good things in life, which reflects their often less than pampered status, historically speaking.

For instance, one of the most famous dogs in literature, Odysseus’ Argos, dies a pitiable death, as Pope’s ‘translation’ from The Odyssey so elegantly conveys in heroic couplets.1

For instance, when things ‘go to the dogs’, they are certainly not improving (1st OED quotation, 1619). If someone ‘dies like a dog’, it is hardly a noble or glorious death.

Þu schalt regne as a lion, butte þu schalt die as a dogge. (before 1425).

The OED groups doggy idioms, proverbs and the like according to the canine characteristic they exemplify. One rubric for the category in which poor mutts are a symbol of maltreatment runs ‘With reference to the quality of a dog’s existence’ and then ‘In various other idiomatic expressions involving an unpleasant thing, circumstance, or event (usually in negative constructions)…’

The broth may be good, but the flesh is not fit for doggs sure.

[a1625   J. Fletcher Wife for Moneth v. i, in F. Beaumont & J. Fletcher Comedies & Trag. (1647) 66

The punishment diet was such as no humane man would give to a dog.

The Times, 6 March 1898

Other examples of translated Yiddish being adopted by non-Yiddish-speaking people are, ‘It should(n’t) happen to a dog!’ [etc.].

American Speech, 18 46, 1943

I’ve heard the way some people talk to sports stars and you wouldn’t talk like that to a dog.

Courier Mail (Austr.), 10 June 2006.

If people from Jacobean playwrights to modern journalists, as in the examples above, say something is ‘not fit for a dog’, or you ‘wouldn’t give X to a dog’, you can be sure that that particular something is deeply undesirable.

The list of negatively connoted phrases goes on like a litany of canine woe (dog’s breakfast/dinner, not a dog’s chance, throw someone to the dogs).

Stubbs’ ‘A Rough Dog’, 1790. It looks a bit like my stepmother’s bearded collie ‘Pushkin’, but dog lovers will know better than me.

It’s a dog’s life

So, what about ‘it’s a dog’s life’? Actually, it’s not in the OED in that precise form: instead, there is a subsection under the rubric previously mentioned:  ‘to lead a dog’s life and variants: to lead a life of misery, or of miserable subservience. So to lead (a person) a dog’s life: to subject (a person) to such an existence.’

Here are the earliest and most recent quotations (with a lot of misery in between left out).

Mr. Ford afterwards had a dogs life among them.

Fox MSS. in J. Strype Eccl. Mem. (1721) III. xxi. 174, a1528

He’d led her a dog’s life, she couldn’t bear to talk about it.

Bristol Evening Post, 29 April 2003

Several other European languages seem to agree about the universal wretchedness of Fido’s life: une vie de chien, una vita da cani, una vida de perros, uma vida de cão, ein Hundeleben, собачья жизнь, Σκυλίσια ζωή. 

This poor little chap certainly has a hangdog look. (Despite myself, you see, I can’t help anthropomorphising him.)

I wondered if corpus could help. Well, in the corpus I consulted, there are 113 examples. However, many of them are not the idiom at all (e.g. I’m a firm believer now that a routine is a very healthy part of a dog’s life). Even with the verb ‘it’s a dog’s life’ many are just puns in texts where dogs are the topic.

Of those that are definitely the idiom, and not punning on the dog connection (less than a dozen), most are negative, e.g. Gerard Doherty is leading a dog ‘s life at the moment. Playing football after a few pints of devil juice is not a good idea. A swollen ankle is proof enough that Gerard is not as young as he thinks.

However, there is a punning one that could be taken to suggest that a dog’s life is a good thing. It’s about a sniffer dog called Jake.

In the wake of Sept. II, Jake often pulled 14-hour days. The long shifts were not his idea of a dog’s life. One night he practically collapsed from exhaustion.

And then a couple more where it is not clear what the implication is:

Ainlee is not living with his wife and for some time there has been a coolness between him and the Baroness. There are two or three children, who are knocked about from one to the other. One day she says “they’re yours, take them”, and then, “They ‘re mine and I want them back”. Rathbone says the poor kiddies haven’t a dog’s life.

Given the strange use of ‘have’ here, could this be a confusion with the idiom ‘a dog’s chance’?

Then…

The holidays are usually the biggest time for animal adoption, but the Humane Society is not sure what to expect this year. Right now that old saying, it’s a dog’s life just doesn’t carry quite the same meaning.

Does this mean that if adoptions go ahead, it’s a dog’s life, therefore a good thing? Or, given the context, does it mean ‘a dog’s life is worth something’?

In connection with ‘a dog’s life’, I was reminded of Auden’s ‘doggy lives’ from Musée des Beaux Arts, one of the poems I recite to myself on the treadmill in the gym to stave off almost terminal boredom.2


 

One of Flaxman’s glorious neo-classical illustrations for The Odyssey.

1 Take Odysseus’ dog, Argos, that exemplar of canine devotion and loyalty. He gets to see his master on his return to Ithaca, and has his praises sung, but his only reward is death, as Pope’s very free translation makes clear. To be read aloud.
WHEN wise Ulysses, from his native coast
Long kept by wars, and long by tempests toss’d,
Arrived at last, poor, old, disguised, alone,
To all his friends, and ev’n his Queen unknown,
Changed as he was, with age, and toils, and cares,
Furrow’d his rev’rend face, and white his hairs,
In his own palace forc’d to ask his bread,
Scorn’d by those slaves his former bounty fed,
Forgot of all his own domestic crew,
The faithful Dog alone his rightful master knew!
Unfed, unhous’d, neglected, on the clay
Like an old servant now cashier’d, he lay;
Touch’d with resentment of ungrateful man,
And longing to behold his ancient lord again.
Him when he saw he rose, and crawl’d to meet,
(‘Twas all he could) and fawn’d and kiss’d his feet,
Seiz’d with dumb joy; then falling by his side,
Own’d his returning lord, look’d up, and died!

2[…]
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy
life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
[…]
(Complete version here)

4 Comments

  1. Interesting! I’ve never heard ‘a dog’s life’ as a good thing in English but strangely enough, the Irish for ‘the life of Reilly’ is ‘saol an mhadaidh bháin’, the life of the white dog! I don’t know how true it is, but some people say that the white dog is able to hide himself among the sheep and thus have an easy time of it and that that is the origin of the expression. 🙂

    Like

  2. The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs lists “a dog’s life, hunger and ease,” suggesting that a dog’s life is one of both misery and pleasure. It quotes Kelly’s Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs, “A dog’s life, mickle hunger, mickle ease. Applies to careless, lazy lubbers, who will not work, and therefore have many a hungry meal.”

    Liked by 1 person

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