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.
The word dog presents a mystery, though: linguists have not identified its roots, nor any English words related to it. The same goes for several other animal-related words, including pig, hog, and stag.
The history of dog
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).
How else do we use dog?
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. And of course, we can’t forget about the hot dog. (Where did it get its silly and kind of gross name?)
There also seem 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 19th century.
A dog-eared page is named after the way many dogs’ ears fold down, as opposed to the perky, upright wolf ear. The story of dog days is one of astronomical proportions, while wag the dog is common political jargon.
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.
Speaking of dogs, where did the phrase the dog ate my homework come from?