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The Origins of “Working Like a Dog” and Other Sayings

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It is quite amazing how many sayings we have that involve dogs, but where did they come from? It makes sense that we would reference them in our vernacular considering how close we are to them, but surprisingly, they are not always referenced in a good light.

Working like a Dog

Simply put, this means to work extremely hard. Farm dogs work from sun-up to sun down, so they saying maybe referencing these hard working canines.

However, day labor “grunt” workers have also been referred to as dogs (derogatory). In this case, working like a dog may be a bad thing; not that you are working really hard, but that you are working hard and low on the totem pull, i.e. not worth much.

Dog Days of Summer

This saying is from ancient Rome and actually has to do with the Dog Star, Sirius. It is so named, because it is the brightest star in the Roman dog constellation, Canis Major. The “dog days” are often though of as the “hottest days of the year,”

Canis Major. @Patchtok via Flickr
Canis Major. @Patchtok via Flickr

but more accurately they are defined “as the period from July 3 through August 11 when the Dog Star, Sirius, rises in conjunction (or nearly so) with the sun.” (www.space.com)

Raining Cats and Dogs

Simply put, it means it’s raining really hard outside.

There are a LOT of myths and speculations about this phrase but the most probable is believe to be from 17 and 18th Century England. Jonathan Swift in “A Description of a City Shower” describes the dead cats and dogs that float along the streets during a heavy storm.

Now in contiguous Drops the Flood comes down,

Threat’ning with Deluge this devoted Town.

Now from all Parts the swelling Kennels flow,

And bear their Trophies with them as they go:

Filth of all Hues and Odours seem to tell

What Street they sail’d from, by their Sight and Smell.

They, as each Torrent drives, with rapid Force,

From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their Course,

And in huge Confluent join’d at Snow-Hill Ridge,

Fall from the Conduit, prone to Holbourn-Bridge.

Sweeping from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts, and Blood,

Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud,

Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.

(Source: Phrases.org)

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Anyone who has raised a puppy can understand the meaning of this one: do not stir (wake up) anything that may cause trouble or an argument. The wiseGEEK says it refers to the way most dogs react if they are suddenly awakened—by biting or lashing out. However, we all know that even if your dog does not lash out immediately, if you wake it up, it can get into trouble so it’s better to let it sleep.

Dogged Determination

If you have ever watched a dog try to get at something they want, be it a bone, toy, or the cat, you know where this expression came from. While exact origins are not really known, it’s clear that to have dogged determination is a good thing and means to pursue without stopping.

Dog and Pony Show

This is one of those phrases that does not necessarily cast a good light on the dogs it’s referring to. There are a few versions of the origins of the phrase, some placing it in the 1920’s, some in the 30’s, and some even as last as the 50’s. The meaning is consistent, however, across them all.

These shows started out popular, but soon became thought of as “gaudy due to their meager budget and ostentatious showcasing of generally unimpressive acts.” (wiseGEEK.com)

A Dog and Pony Show (or act) is a derisive phrasing meaning an elaborate attempt to impress someone with something that does not really have true value or substance.

Have other phrases? Share them in the comments below!

About the Author

Based in Wilsonville, Ore., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and works as a full time trainer. She also owns her own custom pet products company, A Fairytail House, where she makes personalized collars, leashes, beds, keepsake pillows and blankets, and anything else your imagine can think up. In her spare time, she trains and competes in herding, agility, obedience, rally, and conformation with her Shetland Sheepdogs. She smartly married a Veterinary Technician, who helps keep the fur kids happy and healthy, and provides a quick resource for articles.

Written by Kristina Lotz
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