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A dog's life

Dogs are the oldest domesticated animals and they have been known to humans since the Bronze Age.

IT was pouring the other day, the effect of the super moon perhaps. "It's raining cats and dogs," said someone with a sigh.

I looked out of the window to see huge drops of rain beating down with ferocity. Not a single dog or cat. It did make me think of my own dog though, warm and dry somewhere at home. But I digress. I should get back to writing this column. It's not even my column, but the regular writer (who conceived this, and I'm convinced, counts it as one of her finest achievements) is chilling out, literally, somewhere in snow-covered Europe. Something about seeing the Northern Lights, but probably, just wanted time out to enjoy a dog's life far from work.

Did I mention dog again?

It begins to beg the question: why do dogs crop up so often in our use of the language? Indeed, any study of the use of idioms would often have the dog as one of the central examples. Plenty of English idioms - unique phrases with a special meaning that can be very different from the literal meaning - are based on animals, and many of them, it seems, are based on man's best friend.

Market voices on:

But, as befits a business paper, lets look at some numbers. In 2015, a thesis Every dog has its day - A Study of Figurative Animal Expressions in English Idiom Dictionaries was published by Maarit Ruhanen. According to the study, the dog is the most frequently used animal in English idioms and similes with a share of 9.25 per cent. This was followed by the cat (7.51 per cent), horse (6.36 per cent), bird (4.62 per cent), fish (3.18 per cent) and pig (3.18 per cent). The mighty lion didn't roar that loudly in the rankings (1.73 per cent) while the lowly worm is at the bottom with 1.45 per cent.

The study offers the unsurprising explanation why dogs are, erm, top dog: dogs are the oldest domesticated animals and they have been known to humans since the Bronze Age. Hence, they made their way in a big way into human speech (indeed all the top three animals are also the most domesticated). Rather more surprising, in the context of the positive perception of dogs today, is the observation that the dog primarily denotes negative qualities in figurative multi-word expressions. Common examples include "dog eat dog", "be in the doghouse" and "gone to the dogs".

As is so often the case, language evolution is a function of the life and culture of the times. When these idioms were first used, dogs were not all the warm and happy pets they now are. They were reared to work, to stand guard, to hunt, to herd, to pull wagons or sleds. They would have been unwashed, ill-tempered, harassed and aggressive. No wonder then that their human owners projected these less adorable qualities into their figures of speech. That things have changed is reflected in the ambivalent meaning today of one of the best known idioms: it's a dog's life.

The Children's Hour, a book published in 1879, contains this passage. "Some dogs have to work for their living," she added thoughtfully. "They churn, they guard sheep, they follow the chase, they watch their masters' houses and goods. A dog's life is a hard one when he is only kicked and cuffed, and never hears a kind word."

Hence - the origins of the idiom, to describe someone leading a miserable or wretched existence. But with the comfortable, even pampered existence of today's non-working pets, "it's a dog's life" is now sometimes used to describe the good life (although news reports from time to time of badly treated dogs, or dogs being eaten, serve a reminder that reality is never universal).

Finding out how other common dog idioms came about can be a happy distraction. For instance: "let sleeping dogs lie" means to leave things as they are, and not stir up trouble. It comes from the common observation that a sleeping dog may growl, bark or bite when rudely awakened. And it apparently can be traced all the way back to a line in Chaucer's 14th century poem Troilus and Criesyde: "It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake."

"The tail wagging the dog" means to let small details dominate a larger, more important situation. The earliest citation is said to have come from The Daily Republican, April 1872, which wrote: "Calling to mind Lord Dundreary's conundrum, the Baltimore American thinks that for the Cincinnati Convention to control the Democratic party would be the tail wagging the dog." Dundreary is a character in Tom Taylor's play, Our American Cousin. That wouldn't be too far-fetched a comment on today's US politics too.

And what of "raining cats and dogs", which got us started in the first place?

After years of debate, there is still no consensus. Some think it came from a storm sounding like cats and dogs fighting. Or that cats and dogs used to sleep on roof-tops, and a big storm would wash them off. Or that heavy rain and floods would wash up dead cats and dogs on the streets. Possibly, because it is shared with cats, finding an answer to the idiom becomes a more complicated affair. All that can be said is that what has been put forward so far seems to be barking up the wrong tree. Certainly, more serious research into the subject is needed.