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It's a dog's life!


Our ‘dog eat dog’ world is littered with canine sayings — Dr Clive Brooks looks at the top 10 to reveal what they really mean...

 'A Dog in a manger'

Meaning: To be unwilling to let others use or benefit from things that are of no use to you. This sixteenth-century saying comes from an old Aesop fable, which tells of a dog who sat in a manger full of hay and snapped at a hungry ox to prevent him from eating, even though the dog had no use for the hay.

'Raining cats and dogs'

Meaning: Raining heavily. Back in 1709 when the phrase was first used, drainage in cities was so bad that heavy and prolonged downpours caused all manner of dead animals to be washed along in the gutters. Yuck!

'Having a bone to pick with someone'


Meaning: Having something annoying to discuss or settle. In the 1560s, ‘having a bone to pick (or gnaw)’ meant having a problem to solve or something that needed thinking over. The handy version we use today was first used in the mid-nineteenth century.

'Dog days'

Meaning: The hottest days of the year. They were originally considered oppressive and unpleasant, and this saying goes back to the Romans, who noticed that during July and August, Sirius — the dog star — rose and set with the sun. They guessed that, because it shone so brightly, it must be generating heat, adding to that produced by the sun (which, of course, isn’t true). In the sixteenth century,’dog days’ came to mean a corrupt or destructive time. It’s often used in relation to politics.

'See a man about a dog'

Meaning: A euphemism used in place of actually saying where you're going or what you'll be doing. It's also used as an excuse to leave without explaining why. It was originally used in a play called ’Flying Scud’, performed back in 1866.

'In the dog house'


Meaning: To be in disgrace. It relates to how, if a dog was bad or disobedient, it would be sent to its kennel outside as punishment. It was first used in the USA in the 1930s, where the term ’dog house’ dates back to the early seventeenth century.

'Dog eat dog'

Meaning: Being ambitious or ruthless at the expense of other people. It’sanother Roman saying from the first century BC. Varo originally wrote: ’Dog does not eat dog’, the idea being that two of a kind shouldn't harm each other. In the mid-nineteenth century, the clergyman, Charles Spurgeon, pointed out that mankind was an unfortunate exception to the rule, and the modified ’dog eat dog’ saying was coined to describe the aggressive attitudes rife in the human world.

'Hair of the dog'

Meaning: Drinking alcohol to cure a hangover. This saying began life in 1670 in a recipe book which suggested that, if you suffer a dog bite, then a hair from the offending animal should be placed in the wound to protect against infection. Around the same time, the logic was applied to a hangover. The recommendation was to drink some of the liquor imbibed the previous night as a cure. It's questionable whether it works!

'It's a dogs life'

Meaning: An unhappy existence. Nowadays, of course, we all love our dogs and give them a nice, warm home, as well as plenty of food and love. But in times gone by it wasn't like that, and a dog's life was often one of unpleasantness and misery. Dogs were often kept as working animals, fed on nothing but a few scraps, left outside, and generally mistreated. To ’lead someone a dog's life’, was to inflict misery on them. Thankfully, things have changed and now most dogs are delighted with life and wag their tails to tell us — so much so that someone similarly delighted with life is said to be ’like a dog with two tails’.

'Barking up the wrong tree'


Meaning: Following the wrong line of enquiry. It comes from American raccoon hunting in the 1830s. Raccoons were hunted at night with dogs who chased them up trees, and then stood barking until the huntsman arrived. However, the canny quarry would often jump from tree to tree, leaving the dog wasting time and energy barking up the wrong one.