J. K. Rowling says this about early morning commuters: "Muggles bustled past wearing the hangdog expressions of early morning". While I do understand the meaning of the idiom (the same as 'morgensur' in Danish, meaning 'sorry about having to endure this morning'), I wonder where it really comes from.

The only explanation I've come up with is lifting the dog by the scruff. I have a dog, he looks so pathetic when I do this, I want to hug him immediately (and that's supposed to be a punishment, mind you). I couldn't come up with a better explanation and have failed to find something conclusive on the Web to support my idea.

So, when does a dog hang otherwise? :)

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    I've always assumed that "hangdog" refers to the expression on the face of some dogs such as bulldogs -- fleshy cheeks hanging down, giving the dog a sort of depressed look, even when the dog is happy.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 23:55
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    The OED suggests that a hang-dog is "A despicable or degraded fellow fit only to hang a dog, or to be hanged like a dog."
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 0:10
  • Are you certain you quoted that properly? It should be passersby (note the s) if it's a plural number of people. Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 16:02
  • Just a typo, thanks. Anyway, it appears I didn't remember the wording correctly. Corrected. Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 8:53
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    @HotLicks I personally think bloodhounds are a better example...
    – TripeHound
    Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 14:11

2 Answers 2


to have a hangdog look or expression

Allen's Dictionary of English Phrases

to look ashamed or dejected. Hangdog was originally a noun and was commonly used as a form of depreciatory or abusive address in the sense 'a miserable fellow fit only to be hanged like a dog'. There is a 17th century use in the current descriptive meaning by the poet and dramatist Thomas Otway in his comedy We Cheats of Scapin (1676): 'A thing of mere flesh and blood, and that of the worst sort too, with a squinting meager hang- dog Countenance, that looks as if he always wanted physick for the worms.'

And the OED has:

Of, befitting, or characteristic of a hang-dog; low, degraded; having a base or sneaking appearance.

As in this earliest recorded usage:

1677 T. Otway Cheats of Scapin:
A squinting meager hang-Dog Countenance.

Even today in Ame, one hears the occasional ~ “Why so hangdog today?”

  • Thanks! I've found this following your insight: "In earlier centuries dogs were sometimes judicially hanged (which gives rise to a saying in British legal circles "you wouldn't hang a dog on that evidence")." So, the idiom may refer to one that is capable of hanging a dog? Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 7:08
  • It appears it's about being hanged, not doing the hanging. "We’ve long referred to scalawags and scofflaws as “dogs.” And when hanging was in vogue, they believed in hanging in bulk. On a given day, the gallows would be in continuous use. Since hangings were public, the crowd used to stick around until the last convict was hanged." Not sure how reliable this source is though. Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 7:25

My dog was badly treated by her previous owner, and frequently hangs her head and looks guilty and ashamed, as if expecting severe punishment from me. When I stroke her instead she nuzzles me and wants more and more, until after ten minutes I say "No more!", when she promptly puts on the hangdog expression again.

I assumed this was the origin of the idiom - a person has a hangdog expression when they look like a dog expecting to be whipped or beaten, and cannot escape. However, Oxford and other impeccable authorities link it with Judicial Hanging, suggesting that a person looks so despicable that they are fit only to be hanged, or to hang a poor dog, surely a very demeaning task.

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