Why is “dog” one of the great mysteries of the English language?

Behind the simplest words one can often find the most compelling questions. Take for example, “dog.”

Canis familiaris, also known as “dog,” is essentially a domesticated wolf. The dog is a member of the Canidae family, like the jackal and the fox.

About seven centuries ago, the word “hound,” which came from the Old English hund, was the word for all domestic canines. “Dog” was just used to refer to a subgroup of hounds that includes the lovely but frequently slobbering mastiff.

Of course, the opposite is now true. We use dog to talk about all of man’s best friends, from lovable golden retrievers to panting chow chows. And hound is now used to indicate a type of dog used just for hunting. Hound especially refers to a dog with a long face and large, droopy ears. Linguists still speculate about the reversal of fortune for “hound” and “dog.” One idea suggests that the sub-breed known as “dogs” became so populous that “dog” simply became the generic term (sort of an animal equivalent of the way brand names can become so ubiquitous that they start to be used as a general term for their purpose.)

The number of uses of “dog” is remarkable even by the standards of the dictionary. We call sleazy men dogs. We also call our feet dogs. A worthless object, such as a wobbly, rusty bike, is also called a dog.

(Don’t forget about the hot dog. Read about the gross but amazing origin of this dish, here.)

There also seems to be an endless number of idioms incorporating the word, such as “sick as a dog.”

The expressions “a dog’s life” and “go to the dogs” likely refer to a time when the animals were used primarily for hunting and not kept as pets.

The phrase “put on the dog” means to “get dressed up.” It may refer to the stiff, stand-up shirt collars (also known as dog collars) that were all the rage in the late nineteenth century.

A dog-eared page is named after the way many dogs’ ears fold down, as opposed to the perky, upright wolf ear.

Employing the phrase “hair of the dog” to talk about using alcohol as a hangover cure may be as old as drinking itself. The first recorded use is with Pliny, the ancient Roman writer.

We would be remiss if we didn’t throw a bone to cat lovers. Who is the “Tom” that “tomcats” are named for? Find out this fun feline fact, here.