Ever wonder what your favorite dog-related expressions really mean? Or where they come from? Here’s a list of the most commonly used dog idioms, their meanings, and possible origins.
Bark up the wrong tree
Pursue an erroneous course of action.
Origin: In the 19th century when hunting raccoons, one had to go out at night (and typically brought a dog to help). The pursued raccoon would likely flee up a tree and the dog was called to wait at the base and bark until the hunter arrived. If the dog had the wrong tree, the hunter was unlikely to get his prey. Davy Crockett used the expression in his 1833 text, “Sketches and Eccentricities.”
A barking dog never bites
Someone who makes threats all the time seldom carries out the threats.
Origin: The proverb is recorded from the 16th century in English, but the idea is found in Latin in the works of the Roman historian Quintus Curtius.
Better be the head of a dog than the tail of a lion.
It is better to be the leader of a less prestigious group than to be a subordinate in a more prestigious one.
An unexpected tackle or approach from behind; Someone who is interested in romancing another’s partner
Origin: retrievers and pointers that assist hunters locate their prey when they have shot a bird, or pounce on them to retrieve it; the phrase was immortalized by the Everly Brothers in their 1950’s song of the same name
Call off the dogs
To order hunting or watch dogs to abandon their quarry; to stop threatening, chasing, or hounding a person.
Crooked as a dog's hind leg
Someone judged as unreliable or disgusting
Origin: the first time the expression showed up in print was in 1928, in Sherard Vines’ “Humours Unreconciled.”
Dog and pony show
An elaborate production; a show or other event that has been organized in order to get people's support or to persuade them to buy something
Origin:In 1890, reports started to appear in local newspapers of small traveling troupes of performers billed as "dog and pony shows." It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the sarcasm and negative connotation developed, as a result of more flamboyant traveling circus shows touring.
The dog ate my homework
A poor excuse for something that someone has failed to do on time.
Origin:It appears the first time the excuse was given was in 1835 by student Henry Pennywhistle.
A dog's breakfast
A mixture of many things, a hodgepodgev
Dog days of Summer
The hottest days of the summer season.
Origin: It is the period in late July in which the “Dog Star,” Sirius, rises in conjunction with the sun. The ancients believed that the star’s heat added to the heat of the sun, creating a stretch of hot and sultry weather. They named this period of time, from 20 days before the conjunction to 20 days after, “dog days.”
Dog does not eat dog
One disreputable person will not harm another disreputable person.
Origin: 16th century
Dog eat dog world
Vicious world; Ruthless competition; if a situation is dog eat dog, people will do anything to be successful, even if what they do harms other people
Origin: See “Dog does not eat dog”
Dog in the manger
A person who will not share something he does not use or need, but denied its use to others
Origin: an Aesop fable of the same title – “A Dog was lying in a Manger full of hay. An Ox, being hungry, came near and was going to eat of the hay. The Dog, getting up and snarling at him, would not let him touch it. ‘Surly creature,’ said the Ox, ‘you cannot eat the hay yourself, and yet you will let no one else have any’.”
To be lazy, not work
A dog's life
To lead a drab or boring life; unpleasant
Origin: Erasmus first made the comparison in 1542, saying “The most parte of folks calleth it a miserable life, or a dogges life…”
Followed me, bothered me
Done up or dressed up like a dog's dinner
Wearing clothes which make you look silly when you have tried to dress for a formal occasion
Every dog has its day
Everyone gets a chance eventually; revenge will come; the time will come to each of us to chuck one's weight around; to exhibit a periods of ostentation, influence or power.
Origins: the medieval Dutch scholar Erasmus said the phrase was used as a result of the death of Greek playwright Euripides, who in 405 B.C. was mauled and killed by a pack of dogs loosed upon him by a rival. Greek biographer Plutarch recorded the proverb for the first time in “Moralia” (A.D. c. 95); Richard Taverner wrote the first version in English – “A dogge hath a day”in his 1539 “Proverbes.” The modern form of the expression appeared in John Ray’s, “A collection of English Proverbs” in 1670.
Fight like cat and dog
To argue violently all the time
Give a dog a bad name
When someone has been accused of behaving badly in the past, people often expect them to behave like that in the future; a bad reputation that you can’t get rid of
Origin: and old proverb that states “give a dog an ill name and hang him,” which can be interpreted in two ways: “If you can succeed in giving someone a bad name you will destroy him” and “If someone has got himself a bad name he is as good as destroyed.”
Go to the dogs
To decline or come to a bad end
Origin: Food that was not suitable for people to eat was thrown to the dogs, literally. The phrase was originally used by Thomas Copper in his 1565 “Thesaurus”- Addicere aliquem canibus (To bequeath him to the dogs).
Hair of the dog that bit you
A deliberate second experience with something that was a bad first experience, typically a drink of liquor taken when one is recovering from drinking too much liquor and has a hangover, often the same type of liquor as one got drunk on.
Origin: ancient folk wisdom says that “like cures like,” in Latin – “Similia similbus curantur;” likewise a cure for a dog bite in ancient times was placing hair (often burned first) from the dog that bit on the wound. The expression was used in 1546 in John Heywood’s “Proverbs”- “I pray the leat me and my felow haue a heare of the dog that bote us last night.”
Happy as a flea in a doghouse
Have a bone to pick
A point to argue or a complaint to settle
Origin: in the 16th century, it was a comparison to how a dog worries about a bone; in the 19th century, the expression expanded to what happens when two dogs battle over one bone.
Something that you say when you are very pleased about something
Hounds of Hell
Dangerous people or animals
Origin: In Greek mythology, Cerberus, a frightening three-headed dog, guarded the entrances to hell.
If you lie down with dogs, you will get up with fleas
If you associate with bad people, you will acquire their faults.
In the dog house
In trouble or in someone’s (typically a spouse’s) bad graces, followed by scorn or silence
Origin: In James M. Barrie’s 1904 “Peter Pan,” Mr. Darling treats guard dog Nana, a Newfoundland who protects the children, poorly. The children disapprove and leave, while Mr. Darling lives in the dog house as punishment until the children return.
Let sleeping dogs lie
Do not instigate trouble.; Leave something alone if it might cause trouble; Don't bring up an old issue/topic that will raise tempers or cause an argument
Origin: the expression comes from the idea that a watchdog is unlikely to give warning if it is left sleeping; Geoffrey Chaucer used it in “Troilus and Criseyde” in the late 14th century – “It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake.”
Like a blind dog in a meat market
Out of control.
Like a dog with a bone
To refuse to stop thinking about or talking about a subject
Like a dog with two tails
To be very happy
Like dog's breath
Not pleasant, not popular
Love me, love my dog
If you love someone, you should accept everything and everyone that the person loves
Meaner than a junkyard dog
Cruel; eager to fight.
My dogs are barking
My feet are hurting
Origins: In Cockney (English) rhyming slang, “dog meat” means “feet.”
Not have a dog's chance
To not have any chance of doing something that you want to do; no chance at all
Put a dog off the scent
To distract a dog from trailing the scent of someone or an animal.
Put on the dog
To try to seem richer or more important than you really are; to make things extra special or dress formally for a special event.
Origin: college slang in the 1860s, as defined by Lyman H. Bagg’s “Four Years at Yale” in 1871. The phrase likely developed as a result of comparing people walking with popular dog breeds of the day to portray a certain image.
Quick as a dog can lick a dish
Fast, very quickly
Raining cats and dogs
To be raining in great amounts
Origins: 1) in ancient mythology, the cat was thought to influence the weather and the dog was a symbol or signal of wind; 2)The phrase may have originated in England in the 17th century when city streets were filthy and there was no public sanitation services – heavy rain would occasionally carry along dead animals down the street; 3) the racket made by a storm is compared to the thunderous noise made by fighting cats and dogs; 4) the phrase may arise from the era of thatched roofs when downpours would bring cats and dogs dozing atop houses down onto the occupants, especially in Nordic countries where people used to roof their houses with sod and let the animals live on top of that – when the rains came, the roof got weak and the animals fell through into the house; Jonathan Swift used the expression in “Polite Conversation” in 1783.
Sad as a hound dog's eye
Very sad; pitiful
See a man about a dog
To leave for some unmentioned purpose. (Often refers to going to the rest room.) Origin: 1) The earliest known use of the phrase was in the 1866 Dion Boucicault play “Flying Scud,” in which a character avoids a difficult situation by saying, “Excuse me Mr. Quail, I can’t stop; I’ve got to see a man about a dog.” In a1939 revival of the play on NBC Radio, TIME magazine wrote that the phrase was the play’s “claim to fame;” 2) During Prohibition in the United States, the expression was most commonly used as code for consuming alcoholic beverages.
Shaggy dog story
A joke that is a long story with a silly end
Shouldn't happen to a dog
An expression of something that is so bad that no creature deserves it.
Sick as a dog
Very ill; miserable
Origin: In the Bible, Proverb 26:11 states “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a food returneth to his folly,” and in 2 Peter 2:22, it states: “The dog is turned to his own vomit again.”
Tail between his legs, went off with his
Departed in defeat or embarrassment; to retreat cowardly
Origin: A dog puts his tail between his legs when he is frightened or insecure; In the 15th century, “Lanfrank’s Science of Cirurgie” talk about a “wood hound” that walks with “his tail bitwene hise leggis.”
Tail wagging the dog
A situation where a small part is controlling the whole of something.
There's life in the old dog yet
Something that you say which means that although someone is old, they still have enough energy to do things
Throw you a bone
To give you a compliment.
Throw someone to the dogs
To abandon someone to enemies or evil.
The most important and powerful person in a group
Two (or three) dog night
The number of dogs needed to sleep cuddled up to for keeping warm
Wag the dog
To purposely divert attention from what would otherwise be of greater importance, to something else of lesser significance. Origin: Derives from the saying that “a dog is smarter than its tail” – if the tail were smarter, then the tail would “wag the dog.” The expression was used as the title and theme of the 1997 film starring Robert de Niro and Dustin Hoffman.
Why keep a dog and bark yourself?
You should not do something you have hired someone else to do.
Work like a dog
To work very hard
You can't teach an old dog new tricks
Something that you say which means it is difficult to make someone change the way they do something when they have been doing it the same way for a long time
Origin: in 1523 John Fitzherbert told readers of “Newe Tracte or Treatyse Moost Profytable for Husbande Men” that “The dogge must lerne when he is a whelpe, or els it wyl not be; for it is harde to make an elde dogge to stoupe.” Then in 1670, John Ray wrote this Proverb: “An old dog will learn no tricks. It’s all one to physick the dead, as to instuct old men.”
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