Dogs have been associated with a lot of bad press lately, thanks to the Michael Vick mess, but it isn’t the dogs’ fault. In fact, although dogs are generally considered loyal and loving pets, our language is littered with uncomplimentary references to our canine companions.
It’s possible to use "dog" as an informal term for a person, as in, "you lucky dog" or "that dirty dog." Without an adjective, however, a "dog" is "a mean, contemptible fellow" or a slang term for "an unattractive or unpopular person" or "an unsatifactory thing or unsuccessful venture," as in, "His new movie is a dog."
The modifier "dogged" for "persistent, stubborn" reflects the animal’s ability to stay focused on a task, and as a verb, "to dog" is "to follow, hunt or track down as a dog does." In contrast, however, the slang "dog it" means "to fail to exert the maximum or expected effort."
A person who dogs it can end up "in the doghouse." That may be an indication that it’s time to try to "teach an old dog new tricks."
Of course, it may be wise to "let sleeping dogs lie."
"A dog’s life" means "a wretched existence." No wonder "a dog’s age" is a very long time — it probably seems even longer.
A "hangdog" is "a contemptible, sneaky person." As an adjective, it also can mean "ashamed and cringing." Bad dog!
"Hot dog!" is an exclamation of delight. It’s also a frankfurter or a person who shows off. Another showing-off phrase is the slang "put on the dog," meaning "to make a show of being very elegant, wealthy, etc." The origin of this one seems to be a bit obscure.
Speaking of obscure, the phrase "dog in the manger," which comes from an Aesop fable, is one I wasn’t familiar with. The dictionary’s definition is "a person who keeps others from using something which he is not using himself." There are probably plenty of potential applications of this one with today’s ever-expanding gap between haves and have-nots, but I suspect most people use more colorful terms for such folks.
One of my favorite canine terms is "shaggy dog story," which Webster’s says comes from an anecdote involving such a dog. That must have been some story.
The definition is "a long, rambling joke, typically involving ludicrously unreal or irrational behavior and usually having an irrelevant conclusion." Now that’s a definition.
Other dogs in our language include "call off the dogs" and "the tail wagging the dog." "Dogs" is also slang for "feet," which can get "dog-tired."
A person who is "fawning or submissive" is a "lap dog." In golf, we have "doglegs," and in swimming, there’s the "dog paddle."
Some people "dog-ear" pages instead of using a bookmark. And in restaurants we ask for "doggie bags" — once in a while the food is even for a dog.
In military parlance, a "dogfight" is a form of aerial combat, people in the service wear "dog tags," and a "dogface" was U.S. Army slang for a World War II infantryman.
They say that "every dog has his day," but in a "dog-eat-dog" world, sometimes if you "work like a dog" you can become "top dog." Of course, some people can dog it and still get promoted. And I think that’s a doggone shame.
Barry Wood is a senior copy editor for the Register Star. Contact him at email@example.com or write to Wood on Words, Rockford Register Star, 99 E. State St., Rockford, IL 61104.