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Jewish World Review
Jan. 18, 2007
/ 28 Teves, 5767
Putting on the Dog
We nearing the end of 4704, the Chinese Year of the Dog, a good time to explore the presence of dogs in our language and our lives.
The word dog trots, prances and scampers through our marvelous English language. We call a tenacious person a bulldog, a showoff a hot dog, a fortunate person a lucky dog, a man with an active social life a gay dog who puts on the dog ("makes a flashy display") and a rapscallion or cur a dirty dog. A dominant person is a top dog who can run with the big dogs, while his counterpart is an underdog. Some of us lead a dog's life going to the dogs in the doghouse. Others are young pups in puppy love.
Dogs were originally domesticated for their usefulness in hunting, herding and keeping watch. It may be difficult to "teach an old dog new tricks," but dogs have in fact been trained to perform highly skilled tasks, such as turning a spit holding meat over an open fire, guiding the blind, acting as companions for the disabled and sniffing out illegal drugs.
Unquestionably, one of their most endearing characteristics is faithfulness to their owners, which has made dogs valued companions as well. As long ago as 1150, the learned St. Bernard of Clairvaux said, Qui me amat, amat et canem meam." That translates to "Love me, love my dog" an expression of unconditional affection that reposes in many languages.
Other canine proverbs yip and bark across centuries, In the early 19th century in American English, barker came to signify the person who stands outside a carnival or circus to shout (bark) out its attractions to passersby. From the same period in America arose the expression "to bark up the wrong tree," from hunting dogs that mistakenly crowd around the base of a tree thinking they have treed a raccoon that has actually taken a different route. The phrase is still used to mean wasting one's efforts and energies by pursuing the wrong path.
In Geoffrey Chaucer's 14th century tale of Troilus and Creseyde, the poet writes, "It is nought good a sleping hound to wake," which comes down to us as "Let sleeping dogs lie." The title of my grammar-usage book puns on that proverb: Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay (and That's No Lie).
Another expression derived from literature is, believe it or not, "in the doghouse," which means out of favor with the powers that be. The first appearance of this phrase occurs in the James Barrie play Peter Pan. Mr. Darling, the father of the three children, is punished for his shabby treatment of Nana, the Newfoundland dog, who is also the children's nurse. And where does he spend his exile? In Nana's doghouse, of course.
A three-dog night is not only a popular music group of the 1970s, but a night so cold that one must sleep with three dogs in order to generate enough body heat to be comfortable.
"Dog eat dog" dates back from the 16th century, even though Marcus Teretius Varro in 43 B.C.E. reminded us that "Canis caninam non est" "Dogs are not cannibals." Even older is the proverbial "dog in a manger," from an Aesop's fable written around 570 B.C. E. about a snarling dog who prevents horses from eating their corn, even though the dog himself doesn't want it.
In the days of the Romans, the six or eight hottest weeks of the summer were known colloquially as caniculares dies, or "days of the dog." The Romans believed that, during the period roughly from July 3 to August 11, the dog star Sirius rose with and added its heat to the sun, making it the hottest time of year.
Here's something I'll bet you didn't know: The Canary Islands were named after the large dogs (canes grandes) found there. Those familiar yellow songbirds, also native creatures thereabout, were named after the islands, rather than the other way around.
Hey, I could talk about dogs in our language until the last dog is hung. Here the reference is to the dirty dog of the human species who rustled your cattle, and the "hung" is to the vigilante lynchings known as "necktie parties" in the early West. Nowadays the expression most often points to the inevitable two or three people at every cocktail party who hand around everlastingly until the last dog is hung and the host shows them to the door.
Dogs have inspired some of the most clever and luminous quotations in the Bartlett's collections. Here are a dozen of my favorites, which I dedicate to Bart and Mike, our sprightly and companionable black Lab mixes:
If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you; that is the principal difference between a man and a dog, Mark Twain
The average dog is a nicer person than the average person. Andy Rooney
Don't accept your dog's admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful. Ann Landers
If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die, I want to go where they went. Will Rogers
In Vic Lee's comic strip "Pardon My Planet." St. Peter says, "Pearly Gates are no big deal. It only became heaven after we added the doggy door."
There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face. ~ Ben Williams
A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself. ~ Josh Billings
We give dogs time we can spare, space we can spare and love we can spare. And in return, dogs give us their all. It's the best deal man has ever made. ~ M. Acklam
We are alone, absolutely alone on this chance palnet and, amid all the forms of life that surround us, not one, excepting the dog, has made an alliance with us. Maurice Maeterlinck
Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole. ~ Roger Caras
The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself too. -- Samuel Butler
My goal in life is to be as good of a person as my dog thinks I am. Unknown
Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read. Groucho Marx
Near this spot are deposited the remains of one who possessed Beauty without Vanity, Strength without Insolence, Courage without Ferocity, and all the Virues of Man, without his Vices. This praise, which would be unmean Flattery if inscribed over human ashes, is but a just tribute to the Memory of Boastswain, a Dog. George Gordon, Lord Byron
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Richard Lederer Archives
JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. His latest work is Richard Lederer's Anguished English 2007 Calendar: Bloopers And Blunders
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