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Background: I, an Australian, once had a co-worker in North Carolina who would often use Southern-US idioms that confused me. I spent an evening panicked about how to handle "This dog will hunt" as feedback on a document before he clarified that meant he was happy with it. Oddly, the phrases always seemed to involve dogs.

So, when a politician from Florida recently used the baffling expression "A hit dog will holler" I wasn't surprised.

Wiktionary explains its figurative meaning:

An offended or defensive response to a statement suggests that the statement applies to the person complaining.

If I understand this correctly, it is like the schoolyard taunt: I'm rubber, you're glue.

But, I understand why the rubber (the insult bounces off me) and glue (the insult sticks to you) idiom works.

What does the yelping of a beaten dog got to do with tu quoque claims?

[Stop Press: A commenter below suggests that I have misunderstood the figurative meaning, even before we get to the literal meaning. Please set me straight on both in an answer.]

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    I am not sure it is about tu quoque claims. I am not American so I am not confident enough to post as an answer, but it seems to me that it works on the basis that the dog (person) hit (feels that the statement is relevant to them) will holler (defend themselves). If, for example, you make a statement that some people drive too fast, and person X starts asserting that speed is nothing to do with safety, he is the hit dog hollering because he drives too fast. – Roaring Fish Oct 26 '18 at 3:16
  • "This dog will hunt" could apply to a lousy camera lens that takes a huge amount of time for its autofocus to lock on. I'm not sure how the phrase applies to documents. – Lawrence Oct 26 '18 at 3:17
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    @Lawrence: Neither was I, until it was clarified that it meant "I think this plan will work." – Oddthinking Oct 26 '18 at 3:18
  • @RoaringFish: Whoa. I am rereading the Wiktionary article I quoted, thinking I may have misunderstood the figurative meaning. I thought "A hit dog will holler" is the offended or defensive response, but you are saying it is a response TO a defensive response? Oh! These idioms are baffling to me. – Oddthinking Oct 26 '18 at 3:21
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    @user2409018: I don't see that. More an etymology question, which I think at least one of the existing answers demonstrates.. But if that is how the community feels... – Oddthinking Oct 26 '18 at 10:18
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Perhaps the fuller version of the folk saying, popularized by the evangelical revivalist Rev. Sam Jones in the early 1890s, would clear up any mystery about the underlying metaphor:

Sam Jones says, throw a stone into a crowd of dogs, and the hit dog will holler.

Quoted from an article in The Ozark Banner-Advertiser (Ozark, Alabama) 31 Aug 1893 (paywalled).

The underlying metaphor is that an accusation or unflattering description (the 'stone') made about the individuals in a group of less-than entirely respectable people (the 'crowd of dogs') will get a response (the 'holler') from whichever of those people are so accurately described or accused (the 'hit dog').

While the dog may holler, the Rev. Jones did not hesitate to advocate against the throwing of the stone in the first place, with this bit of advice quoted in the El Paso Times (Texas; paywalled), 01 Jan 1893:

"Quit your meanness," is one of Sam Jones' sensible bits of advice to men.

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    Great background on the original folk saying and an astute explanation of its figurative meaning—really, this is just a perfect answer. In one sense, the saying is the reverse case to the observation that Jaques makes in As You Like It: "And they that are most gauled with my Folly. / They most must laugh: And why, Sir, must they so? / The way is plain, as way to Parish Church; / He that a Fool doth very wisely hit, / Doth very foolishly, altho' he smart, / Seem senseless of the Bob. If not, / The wise Man's Folly is Anatomiz'd / Even by the squandring Glances of a Fool." – Sven Yargs Oct 27 '18 at 6:46
  • In Britain, the usual equivalent is If the cap fits -wear it. – Tim Lymington Oct 30 '18 at 10:16
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"A hit dog will holler" is not about a beaten dog, but a dog that's been hit, either figuratively or physically - meaning, that the comments made hit home hard and/or applied and made the "hit dog" yelp/holler, or, inferring that the comments made hit the nail on the head and were true as evidenced by the "dog's" reaction to it.

It is similar to Shakespeare's "the lady doth protest too much, methinks" where the overly insistent protests reveals that the opposite may be true about something.

"I'm rubber and you're glue" doesn't apply here as it is merely a schoolyard retort to bullying/name-calling.

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There are similar proverbs in other languages. For example, in Czech they say something like:

The goose that has been shot honks the loudest.

In Russian (and subsequently, Yiddish and modern Hebrew):

On the head of the thief, the hat burns.

And a few others that all have the same meaning: the person who reacts most vehemently to criticism, does so because the criticism is most relevant to them. In other words, the reason you take offense is precisely because you're guilty of the accusation.

Also of the same family:

If the shoe (or cap) fits, wear it.


Note that both the hit dog and the shot goose picture someone throwing a stone or shooting a gun at a group. Then the individual successfully hit makes noise.

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A hit dog will holler: You're just complaining because I've already verbally bested you.

Stop taking cheap shots at me just because I proved you wrong.

The metaphor: The hit dog is the person who lost the argument and the hollering is their verbal attacks at the winner.

In the context of politics: Stop making attacks that are beside the point we're debating just because I'm winning.

  • Please cite your sources. – Kris Oct 26 '18 at 6:12
  • I am afraid this is widely off the mark (semi-pun intended). – michael.hor257k Oct 26 '18 at 6:23
  • The "hit dog" can be anything verbal that causes "pain" to the person being spoken to. – Lambie Oct 26 '18 at 22:46

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