2

Dogs are often considered as man's best friend. However, the aforementioned phrase has a certainly negative meaning. The same phrase exists in French as well.

Other negative phrases with dogs include work like a dog, die like a dog, a dog's life, etc. How long ago in the English language does this negative connotation date?

  • 1
    Dogs may be man’s best friend in modern-day, affluent, Westernised societies, but they weren’t always. For centuries, if not millennia, they were mainly wild animals that roamed human settlements, eating scraps and leftovers, fighting with each other, and spreading diseases (this is still the case in some places); or they were animals kept for working, such as shepherd dogs. Domesticated, friendly, clean puppies are a relatively recent phenomenon, and expressions like the ones you mention hail back to a time when dogs were certainly not man’s best friend. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 6 '14 at 17:35
  • 1
    This has little to do with the English language but rather with culture. In many cultures, the dog is a very lowly regarded animal. In some religions it is even seen as unclean. In medieval Europe, dogs were more or less parasites in the cities (unless they were the nobles' hounds), yet where possible they were used for the kind of slave labour you wouldn't usually let a human do (or just when you had no human available (pull carts, run tredmills, etc). Since they bred well by themselves, they were replaceable, so it was no problem to work them to death. – oerkelens Oct 6 '14 at 17:36
  • 2
    Dogs have long coexisted with humans (we probably bred them from wolves), so they're a well-known relatively intelligent animal. And it won't escape most people's notice that dogs are less important than people - so they can be treated worse with impunity. – FumbleFingers Oct 6 '14 at 17:38
  • 1
    It's only very recently that people in affluent societies have been treating pets as practically like family members. – Barmar Oct 6 '14 at 20:05
3

Yours is an interesting question but, as explained in the previous answers and comments, since dogs were considered wild and possibly dangerous animals till a few centuries ago, I think that probably the issue is: when did expressions about dogs change from negative to neutral or positive?

  • The first linguistic oddity to do with dogs concerns where the word 'dog' came from. The name was preceded by the perfectly good Anglo-Saxon word 'hound', which was also used in other European languages. 'Dog', in common with several other animal names ending in 'g', like frog, hog, pig and stag, seems to have been coined around the 13th century for reasons that no one is at all sure about.

  • Prior to the 18th century, dogs were kept for hunting and defence and not as pets. The only deviation from that rule was that of the derided 'lap-dog', which John Evelyn recorded in his Diary, circa 1684, as a dog fit only for ladies: Those Lap-dogs had so in delicijs [delight] by the Ladies - are a pigmie sort of Spaniels. Lap-dogs apart, the phrases used to refer to dogs in the 16th and 17th centuries indicate their image as being vicious and disease-ridden:

  • Hair of the dog that bit you, first used in 1546 as a reference to rabies.

  • Cast someone to the dogs, 1556. Dog in the manger , 1564

  • If you lie down with dogs, you will get up with fleas, 1573 The dogs of war, 1601

  • Go to the dogs, 1619

Also, phrases that indicate the treatment of dogs show that they were considered to be of little worth:

  • Lead a dog's life (1528) Not fit for a dog (1625) As sick as a dog (1705)

  • The unfortunate mutts were considered so beyond the pale that dog hangings, as punishment for chasing sheep or whatever else dogs did naturally, were commonplace. The phrase 'give a dog a bad name', 1705, was originally 'give a dog a bad name and hang him'.

The language relating to canines took a turn for the better later in the 18th century.

  • The first example in print of the term 'dog-basket' dates from 1768. The need for a name for a piece of furniture provided specifically for the comfort of dogs shows a clear turning point in attitudes towards them. This shift in outlook continued steadily and in 1823 we first find 'dog biscuits', followed in 1852 by 'dog show'. By the mid 20th century we find clear linguistic evidence that a dog was to be considered almost on a par with humanity - 'dog-sitter' (1942).

  • The greatest claim to fame of Warrensburg, Missouri is that it is where the phrase 'a dog is a man's best friend' originated. In 1870, a farmer shot a neighbour's dog and, in the subsequent court case where the owner sued for damages, the lawyer George Graham Vest gave a tear-jerking speech that became known as the Eulogy to a Dog:

Source: The Phrase Finder

2

Dogs were not always regarded so highly. Yes, they were a great help to early man (and remain so today), but they weren't elevated to the position of "man's best friend" until relatively recently.

I don't know how long ago the comparison was first made between someone low and a dog, but it must have been a long time ago. In The merchant of Venice (Act I, Scene III), Shylock states

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help...
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur...
You call'd me dog; and for these courtesies
I'll lend you thus much moneys'?

Much earlier, in the Bible,

Then Abishai son of Zeruiah said to the king, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and cut off his head.” (Samuel)
... it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. (Phillipians)

From the above, I would guess that as long as there were skulking dogs, there have been such comparisons made.

  • How much earlier is whatever translation of the Bible that you reference than Shakespeare? Because we are talking about English-language usage. In addition, a Jew calling a Gentile a dog is standard practice, or at least was. It's possible Shakespeare's reversal is a tit for tat thing. – pazzo Oct 6 '14 at 17:51
  • The Phoenician word for dog is כלב, and Hebrew, כֶּ֙לֶב֙, so it has nothing to do with which translation it is. In Job (a very old book), he mentions כַּלְבֵי צאֹנִי (sheep-dogs) with implied inferiority. – anongoodnurse Oct 6 '14 at 17:58
  • Yes, but we are talking about the usage of "dog" in English. That a usage occurs in BCE (or even CE in another language/culture) does not necessarily have anything to do with usage in English. – pazzo Oct 6 '14 at 18:05
  • 1
    I'd need an OED for that. But language doesn't exist apart from culture, so the cultural references are relevant. – anongoodnurse Oct 6 '14 at 18:06
  • Wow, I'm amazed at how my original question was edited. Was this absolutely necessary? +1'd your answer nevertheless. – jFrenetic Oct 6 '14 at 18:28
1

According to the OED, "hound" is an older word than "dog" in English. The earliest cited use of hound to refer to a person in a derogatory way is from the year 1000. Others from 1290, 1340, etc. By that time, "dog" was being used in the same way.

Now this, prompted by @medica answer: As the Bible was translated into English, the instances of the Jewish use of "dog" as the word appears in English translation began to be known among English-speakers. (Think: Shakespere and then printing press). The influence of the English bible on the vocabulary of English-speaking people can hardly be overstated. And the usages in English translations of scripture (here I include 2 of approx 40, including the "messianic" Psalm 22 ("For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me") and Matthew 7:6 "give not that which is holy unto dogs") became famous and iconic. I will note that the usage in Job is not derogatory, as it refers to a shepherd dog.

  • I said the reference to dogs in Job implied inferiority. Here it is: "But now those younger than I mock me, Whose fathers I disdained to put with the dogs of my flock. In other words, they weren't good enough to stay with his dogs. It has nothing to do with their being "shepherd dogs". – anongoodnurse Oct 6 '14 at 23:54
  • @medica "dogs of my flock" refers to sheep dogs, or dogs that work the flock. – pazzo Oct 7 '14 at 15:05

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.