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It’s a dog’s life

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In my last post, we looked at expressions that refer to our feline friends – see https://english-stuff.com/2021/07/18/cats/ But today it’s time to focus on our other four-legged friends, in other words, dogs.

The dog-human connection has been around for a long time. Initially dogs hunted food for humans, and in return they received food and shelter. When people began to move into cities in the Victorian age, there was less of a demand for working dogs. However, dogs have remained in our households with the status of family members, due to the intense emotional connection between dog owners and their pets. Man’s best friend, indeed.

Dogs in idiomatic expressions

“All bark and no bite “

You know those dogs that wouldn’t harm a flea but they bark excitedly when they see something is going on? That’s exactly the type of dog that inspired this expression.

When we use this phrase to refer to humans, we mean they may sound threatening, but in fact they are pretty harmless. Their so-called aggression is only an act, as they are not actually going to do you any harm at all.

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“Puppy love”

Adorable little pups aren’t they ? But as they get older, they will grow into independent adult dogs and their relationship will not be quite as close as the intense bond they feel for each other now.

We use this idiom to refer to adolescent couples who are infatuated with each other, and whose feelings will generally cool after a while.

” You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”

This is considered to be one of the oldest idioms in the English language, first documented in 1523 in John Fitzherbert’s Book of Husbandry, where it used literally to describe the behaviour of an aged dog.

Nowadays this is used to describe a situation where an older person is unwilling or unable to learn new skills, or to change their longstanding habits.

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“Every dog has its day “

This is another idiom that has been around for thousands of years, albeit with slightly different wordings. Queen Elizabeth I wrote it in a letter, Shakespeare used it in Hamlet, and Erasmus traced the idea back to a Macedonian proverb in 406B.C. when Euripedes was attacked and killed by dogs.

It means that everyone will get their chance, no matter how lowly their status in life.

“Gone to the dogs”

If something has gone to the dogs, then it is in a very bad way. One theory is that any food that had rotted or gone off was given to the dogs, as it was no longer fit for human consumption, giving rise to our idiom.

Another variation on this is “gone to pot“, also still used today, and with the same meaning, not in the best of situations. The Phrase Finder suggests that this expression came about because anything that was placed in a pot to be cooked was never going to come back.

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“Let sleeping dogs lie”

This one comes from the idea that watchdogs can behave aggressively and unpredictably if they are suddenly woken from a deep sleep (and a lot of humans too, I dare say). This idea has been with us since at least medieval times – in 1380 Geoffrey Chaucer wrote “”It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake.

The idea has morphed into ” Don’t mess around with something if it isn’t necessary” or ” If it ain’t broken, then don’t fix it .”

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“The tail is wagging the dog”

Let’s finish with an expression that orginated in the States, but is used and understood on both sides of the Atlantic. Let’s not bark up the wrong tree here – a dog communicates by wagging its tail, not the tail controlling the dog, right ?

Seen in print since the late 1800’s, this idiom means that a more powerful person or organisation is being controlled by someone or something less important.

As dogs are part of our lives, they are inevitably part of our language.

Bye all. I’m off to see a man about a dog.

By paulinell

I am an EFL teacher, examiner, Spanish to English translator and English-stuff is my blog on English history, culture and language.

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