Plenty of English idioms are based on animals, and many of them are based on man’s best friend. Man and dog have been together for centuries, with dogs being used for hunting and farm work, before being taken into our homes as beloved pets. Our changing relationship with dogs over the centuries is actually reflected in many English idioms that are still in use today.
Here is a guide to help you understand some of the most common dog-based idioms that you’re bound to come across on your travels or as part of your studies. As with all of our animal-based idioms, the key to understanding often lies simply in picturing the image that’s created in your mind by these phrases – let your imagination do the work and you’ll often guess the correct meaning.
It’s a dog’s life
If someone is leading a dog’s life they’re leading a ‘miserable or wretched existence’, and they’re ‘downtrodden and put upon’.
But why? Most dogs these days are pampered pooches, fed well, taken on long walks, they get to sleep all day – some are even dressed up and taken to the hairdresser! But it wasn’t always this way. This expression was first recorded in a 16th-century manuscript, and back then dogs were subservient, hard working, often employed on farms, and often mistreated. This passage from The Children’s Hour, published in 1879, gives us a clue:
“Some dogs have to work for their living,” she added thoughtfully. “They churn, they guard sheep, they follow the chase, they watch their masters’ houses and goods. A dog’s life is a hard one when he is only kicked and cuffed, and never hears a kind word.”
“Then people must mean that one leads a dog’s life when no one is kind to him,” said Louise. “I don’t want to lead such a life.”
Today it is still used to describe life’s toughness. When complaining to someone about having had a long or hard day at the office, your friend might commiserate with you and say “Yep, it’s a dog’s life!”
Raining cats and dogs
This is something that you say when it is raining very, very heavily.
After lots of debate and discussion over the years, no is really sure where this idiom originated. It could be a comparison between the howling wind and the lashing rain of a storm and the noise of cats and dogs fighting. It could date back to the time of Northern European myths and stories where cats symbolized rain and dogs symbolized the wind. Or it could be something far more horrible:
“In 17th century Britain, after a cloudburst the gutters would overflow with a filthy torrent that included dead animals….”
It could be that in the days before cats and dogs were pampered pets and instead roamed the streets, the dead bodies of drowned cats and dogs became a familiar sight whenever a heavy rain came.
Let sleeping dogs lie
This means to let bygones be bygones – a warning not to stir up trouble or old, ongoing arguments.
It’s pretty obvious isn’t it? Wake up a dog that’s sleeping peacefully and you just might get a nasty bite, or at the least get barked or growled at.
But where does the idiom come from? It can be traced all the way back to a line in Chaucer’s 14th century poem Troilus and Criesyde:
“It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake”
Here the word hound is used because the word dog wasn’t around until a couple of centuries later!
A dog-eat-dog world
Snoop Dogg will tell you it’s a dog-eat-dog world. And when he talks about that he’s talking about a competitive world – one in which only the strongest survive.
Eat or be eaten! Is the message contained in this idiom. It’s often used to describe the competitive, ruthless working world – try finding a job during an economic crisis, or compete with your colleagues for a promotion, and you’ll soon find out what a dog-eat-dog world is. It’s another example of an idiom that uses animals to describe the tough nature of life, like ‘it’s a jungle out there’, or ‘it’s a rat race.’
Hair of the dog
You’ll find plenty of people who believe that you can cure a hangover by drinking more alcohol the next morning – and they call this the hair of the dog.
Short for ‘the hair of the dog that bit one,’ it means that the same thing that caused the injury, or trouble, or hangover, can be used to treat it or cure it. This idiom comes from a medieval belief that when someone was bitten by a rabid dog, a cure could be made by applying the same dog’s hair to the infected wound. Trying to remove some hair from a rabid dog can’t have been much fun! Somewhere along the line the phrase basically became an excuse for drinking more booze, but it’s a concept that’s widely held across many cultures: likes are cured by likes.