An earlier question of mine What does a cat's tail do? got me thinking. When did dogs begin to wag their tails? And do any other animals wag?

According to Google, very few books have ever been written with the phrase cats wagging tails. A catastrophic two, no less. On the other hand, dogs wagging tails fetches 95 hits on Google Books, which might surprise you until I reveal how many hits ‘wagging tails’ retrieves, an impressive 5,250. But it appears that authors prefer to write stories, and tales, about our four-legged friends in the singular. The phrases, ‘a/the wagging tail’ gets 15,200 hits, while wagged its tail peaks at 74,400 hits.

So, what is the petymology of ‘wag’, as in

(Especially with reference to an animal’s tail) move or cause to move rapidly to and fro.
[no object]: his tail began to wag
[with object]: the dog went out, wagging its tail

Was it the brainchild of a writer? Perhaps it was created by a children's books author? Or maybe, it originated from a nursery rhyme.


I mentioned a children nursery rhyme in my question because I distinctly remember one called Little Bo Peep. The verse which I reproduce here, is taken from Wikipedia

Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep,
And doesn't know where to find them;
Leave them alone, And they'll come home,
Wagging their tails behind them

According to the article the rhyme first appeared in print in 1805 but there is evidence to suggest that a children's game existed in the 16th century with the same name. Shakespeare's play, King Lear also contains a reference. The phrase "to play bo peep" was used since the 14th century to describe the public humiliation and punishment given to minor offenders that was the pillory.

  • 5
    I'm sorry for the pawful puns, I guess you could say I'm feline a bit silly today.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 6, 2014 at 13:08
  • My @josh you're fast off the mark!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 6, 2014 at 13:12
  • Mari Lo, am I fast off the mark, too? Nov 6, 2014 at 13:44
  • 1
    Cats twitch their tails - usually as a sign of agitation - far different than the affable wag of a dog's tail. I'll be watching for the answer because I'm curious now too! :-) Nov 6, 2014 at 15:51

2 Answers 2


The Middle English Dictionary has an entry about ‘waggen’ which quotes the same lines as ethymonline and additionally mentioned cats wagging their tails as early as 1475:

A catte ... as sone as he is ware of the mowse and caste for to take hir, he will wage his tayle as it wer for loue


Wag: (etymology)

  • early 13c. (intransitive), "waver, vacillate, lack steadfastness," probably from a Scandinavian source

  • of dogs and their tails from mid-15c.: "and whanne they [hounds] see the hure maystre they wol make him cheere and wagge hur tayles upon him." [Edward, Duke of York, "The Master of Game," 1456]. (from Etymonline)

Wagging tails:

  • all canine wild species (wolf, fox,etc) wag tails when puppies, but not when adult (domestic dogs came from the playful youthful wild canines who were not as wild and not as likely to succeed as wild canines)

  • prairie dogs wag tails when playing and when worried or watching for danger

  • cows, elephants, and many similar animals all wag tails to get rid of flies.

  • 2
    I would disagree about the cows/elephants/etc. I consider wagging to be a somewhat fast back-and-forth motion (such as what a dog's tail does); cows, horses, and the like tend to flick their tails periodically to discourage flies. Think about when you wag your finger at someone in disapproval: your finger doesn't go back and forth just once, maybe wait a bit, then do it again later -- it's a regular, near-sinusoidal rhythm, and carries a specific meaning as well.
    – Doktor J
    Nov 6, 2014 at 18:02
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    Wagging referring to animals ,different from dogs, indicates a movement of the tail from one side to the other ( not specifically the movement of a dog's tail) Wag: to move to and fro or up and down especially with quick jerky motions (from M-W). Cows : m.youtube.com/watch?v=GgJnmAVsZlA - Elephants: m.youtube.com/watch?v=Pm3mXIFNJi0
    – user66974
    Nov 6, 2014 at 20:06
  • I'd agree those elephants are definitely wagging their tails... not so sure about the cows (in part due to the nasty shakycam). I think what I perceive of as wagging involves a regular or rhythmic motion (which you'll note the elephants' tails do); the cows' tails are more irregular and intermittent. On a non-sequitur, I disagree with the cow video's title; the cows are not "wagging" their tails because they're happy, they're almost certainly shooing flies -- note when one turns around, the near-constant ear flicks and head shakes associated with fly deterrence.
    – Doktor J
    Nov 6, 2014 at 20:39
  • 1
    Love the elephant's clip. Wagging tails in unison!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 7, 2014 at 13:09

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