Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you


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It’s a dog’s life (Part II). What does ‘It’s a ‘dog’s life’ mean? Good or bad?



I’m not quite sure what’s bitten me, but, I’ll be doggoned, I can’t stop nuzzling through all things linguistically canine. Previously, I‘ve looked at: the origin of ‘it’s a dog-eat-dog world’; at its eggcorn version; and at whether ‘X’s bark is worse than X’s bite’ and ‘it’s a dog’s lifehave parallels in other languages. Subsequently, I’ve come across a few curiosities I thought I’d ‘share’, particularly for US readers, who are the overwhelming majority of visitors to this blog. (Thanks!)

In addition, I’m sort of obliquely revisiting ‘it’s a dog’s life’, though I hope all this won’t turn into a shaggy-dog story.


As mentioned previously, the OED has a welter of pooch-related phrases, proverbs, compounds, and so forth. Not to mention the 31 fundamental meanings of the word, several of which are further subdivided.

Apart from various highly technical meanings, there is one which regular visitors, like me, to stately homes – National Trust or otherwise – might well come across: ‘A utensil, consisting of an iron bar sustained horizontally at one end by an upright pillar or support usually ornamented or artistically shaped, at the other by a short foot; a pair of these, also called ‘fire-dogs,’ being placed, one at each side of the hearth or fire-place, with the ornamental ends to the front, to support burning wood.’ These dogs, otherwise known as andirons, tend to be the sort of ostentatious metalwork, or domestic bling, that nowadays only the truly grand or the truly pretentious can indulge in (you need a fireplace, for starters, preferably a large one).

These are truly splendid Dutch seventeenth-century (fire)dogs.


Most Americans would be baffled by a Brit saying ‘give us a bell on the dog’. (‘Is this some kind of weeeeuuuuuurd pooch accessory you crazy guys use that we haven’t heard of?’)

‘To give someone a bell’ is informal British English for ‘to phone’ someone, and ‘the dog’ is short for ‘dog and bone’, which is rhyming slang for…phone.

(Actually, that utterance is one of those made-up examples that used to be the norm in dictionaries but wouldn’t cut the mustard nowadays; though theoretically plausible, it is unlikely [despite existing on Google] because the second part is redundant: ‘to give someone a bell’ implies on the phone, which therefore does not usually need to be stated.)

Similarly opaque for US readers might be dressed up like a dog’s dinner – meaning ‘wearing extremely smart or ostentatious clothes for an occasion for which they are entirely inappropriate’; and, slangwise, something being the dog’s bollocks when it is the best of its kind, the genuine article, the bee’s knees, the cat’s pyjamas, etc., e.g. ‘Back in 1996, when the supercomputer was installed at Australia’s National University, it was the dog’s bollocks.’


Now, reverting to it’s a dog’s life, Paul Nance, who is an assiduous reader of this blog, kindly posted a comment noting that for ‘it’s a dog’s life’ the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs compiled by William George Smith. Oxford at the Clarendon Press, Second edition (1948), reprinted 1963, page 152) quotes a proverb suggesting that a dog’s life may be mixed:

As Paul wrote: ‘…“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.”‘

I have to say that I find it hard to be convinced by the argument cum proverb, for three principal reasons: first, a proverb may exist – in the sense of having been recorded – but be infrequent, or only relevant historically (For instance, outside the covers of dictionaries, I have never encountered a dog that will fetch a bone will carry a bone and its variants, all of which mean ‘a gossip carries gossip both ways’.)

Second, which is a corollary of the first, although framed as a proverb by someone once, a given ‘proverb’ may not feature in people’s mental lexicons at all, and therefore certainly not represent a general truth in people’s minds. And in fact, the Scots proverb above contradicts the first one (‘mickle‘ means ‘a lot of’).

Third, so many proverbs, phrases, and derivatives connected with bow-wows are negative that the balance of probability linguistically suggests that a dog’s life just has to be negative. To take three examples, 1) you can only ever be dogged by something bad, such as bad luck, illness, etc.; 2) historically, if something is dog + ADJECTIVE X, it is generally bad, despised, or not desirable, e.g. OED C. 1 d) & e), dog-tired, Lear’s dog-harted daughters, A wretched kind of a dog-look’d fellow, dogmad, dog-hungry, and so forth; and 3) if something is dog + NOUN X, it is of poor or dubious quality, e.g. OED C.1 f) …

1565   M. Harding in J. Jewel Def. Apol. Churche Eng. (1567) 94   Luther would stampe, and rage, and whette his dogge eloquence vpon you.

1581   P. Wiburn Checke or Reproofe M. Howlets Shreeching f. 29   Heere is praeda Mysorum, expounded and set out with dogge Rhetorike, and much adoe.

1611   J. Florio Queen Anna’s New World of Words   Versaccij, dog-rimes, filthy verses.

(I will pass over what my most attentive readers will have spotted, namely that 2) and 3) here possibly contradict what I said earlier about a proverb only being relevant historically. No matter: ‘a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’ ;-). )

Nevertheless, usage changes in line with changed attitudes. Since dogs in English-speaking countries are hugely popular as pets and are pampered, cosseted, spoiled, accessorized and anthropomorphized almost to death, there is every reason to suppose that ‘it’s a dog’s life’ will over time become exclusively a positive thing. In fact, a micro-minsurvey on Twitter revealed to my surprise that half of respondents over 40 already interpret it as a good thing, and under a third of those under 40 also do. Of course, it is also true that one might use it in one way oneself, but happily interpret it the other way round, according to context.

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It’s a dog’s life. And the dogs go on with their doggy life.


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)


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His bark is worse than his bite; Perro que ladra nunca muerde; Can che abbaia non morde


(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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What does ‘It’s a dog-eat-dog world’ mean? And a doggy dog world?

Aaaaaw!


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.

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.