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I hear my older coworkers use this idiom/phrase occasionally. It seems possibly to be a humorous way to get out of a conversation. Even as a native English speaker, I've never figured out the exact situation you would use this phrase. It almost sounds like it may have once been a punchline to a joke in a movie or something.

I'm curious what is the exact meaning/usage of this phrase/idiom? Where does it originate?

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When i was a child, my grandfather use to excuse himself every morning by saying "I have to see a man about a dog". Much later, my grandmother explained to me that he was going to the bookies to bet on a horse race. –  Kevin Lawrence Jan 15 '11 at 7:29
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The exact situation would be when you need to make arrangements about purchasing a dog from a man ;-) –  SF. Nov 27 '12 at 16:06

4 Answers 4

up vote 42 down vote accepted

Wikipedia actually has an article dedicated to this phrase. It says:

The earliest confirmed publication is the 1866 Dion Boucicault play Flying Scud in which a character knowingly breezes past a difficult situation saying, "Excuse me Mr. Quail, I can't stop; I've got to see a man about a dog." In a listing for a 1939 revival on the NBC Radio program America's Lost Plays, Time magazine observed that the phrase is the play's "claim to fame".

Wiktionary adds:

  • The most common variation is to "see a man about a horse".
  • Almost any noun can be substituted as a way of giving the hearer a hint about one's purpose in departing.
  • The inversion to "see a dog about a man" eliminates any lingering uncertainty about whether the hearer is being put off.
  • A shorter variant is to "see a man".

As to the exact situation in which you would use this phrase, it suggests:

Used as an excuse for leaving without giving the real reason (especially if the reason is to go to the toilet, or to have a drink)

Back to Wikipedia again,

During Prohibition in the United States, the phrase was most commonly used in relation to the consumption or purchase of alcoholic beverages.

World Wide Words has additional info:

This has been a useful (and usefully vague) excuse for absenting oneself from company for about 150 years, though the real reason for slipping away has not always been the same. [...] From other references at the time [around 1866] there were three possibilities: 1) [the speaker] needed to visit the loo [...] 2) he was in urgent need of a restorative drink, presumed alcoholic; or 3) he had a similarly urgent need to visit his mistress.

Of these reasons [...] the second became the most common sense during the Prohibition period. Now that society’s conventions have shifted to the point where none of these reasons need cause much remark, the utility of the phrase is greatly diminished and it is most often used in a facetious sense, if at all.

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In my personal experience, this phrase and the horse variant were used specifically to excuse oneself to go to the restroom. –  epotter Nov 5 '10 at 17:15

Man about a dog is from Newcastle UK. An old jordy told me that. That's my credentials and knowing this man I stand by em. It means I'm off to the pub.

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In my experience it is a double-layered rhyming slang phrase.

"I have to see a man about a dog" is a thinly veiled semi-polite phrase which is used to excuse yourself from your current company, because you have to take a bog; where "take a bog" means to "take the time (out from the current situation) to defecate".

It may not be the original meaning, but then again, it may well be, because vulgar slang always pre-dates general public references to such phrases.

Well, that's my two cent's worth. But excuse me, I have to see a man about a dog...

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I don't think I've ever come across the usage take a bog. It's more common to say go to the bog. –  Kevin Lawrence Jan 15 '11 at 7:25

In my experience, this phrase isn't particularly associated with using the toilet (and certainly isn't rhyming slang) in the UK at least. It simply means 'mind your own business'.

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