English would be a pretty toothless language without dogs roaming through it.
When Henry Schulman, baseball writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, wanted to convey the nature of Brandon Belt’s recent injury problems, he referred to Belt’s “barking knee,” serious enough to make troubles for the Giants first baseman, but not so bad as to force him on the disabled list.
His knee’s bark was worse than its bite, in other words.
Students of the language have suggested that doggy idioms abound for the simple reason that humans and dogs are so close, and have been evolving together for so long, that we naturally turn to dogs for help when reaching for a phrase. There’s also another, deeper reason: Dogs are utterly of the moment yet have the uncanny habit of tricking us into seeing them as a kind of tail-wagging, teeth-baring, leg-raising version of us. So the metaphors aren’t a big reach.
It’s not at all catty to suggest that you can say almost anything in dog terms, and they won’t object.
How could anybody better describe a quick right turn, followed by a quick left turn, than a “dogleg?”
If we skip dinner our stomach may start growling. We could wind up in the doghouse if you ain’t never catch a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.
Actually, I did have a friend one time. Together, up in Massachusetts, homeless as they call it nowadays, we endured a three-dog night. But he turned out to be a dirty dog.
Nobody ever says it’s “raining like cats and dogs” anymore, partly because we’re in a semi-permanent drought, but mostly because the combination of cats and dogs, meaning so much chaos is coming down that the sky’s output includes everything and its opposite, that you better not forget the galoshes.
At our new cafe, heavily stocked with organic dog biscuits, the new front doors are operated with a bar that you push in to unlock them. If you want to keep the doors unlocked, you will have to follow the “dogging” instructions, printed on a small sticker affixed to the bars.
Why not call it “catting” the door? To ask is to answer. Cats can’t be trusted near doors.
Nobody really knows why we were having a sausage on a bun but called it a “hot dog” when watching Belt limp around the infield the other evening. (He wasn’t dogging it, by the way.) There was a theory that a sketch man for Hearst newspapers, Tad Dorgan, drew a cartoon showing a dachshund in a bun, having been inspired by some vendors, if not the competition on the field. He reputedly used the caption “hot dog” because he couldn’t spell “dachshund.”
Not true. No cartoon was ever found, despite a dogged search.
More likely, somebody decided the sausages, though hot enough, still tasted like ground dog meat, and thus would be no worse tasted from beneath a heavy slathering of mustard. And yet the “hot dog,” applied to persons, closely linked to the “big dog” in social status, carries a certain panache, implying a show-off, restless courage maybe but not the real deal. A hot dog never really sinks his teeth into anything.
You can be sick as a dog and still work like a dog, a topic we covered before.
Why are the removable pegs I use to clamp something down on my woodworking bench called “bench dogs?” No idea. I doubt I ever figure out how to use them, by the way. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Original!
Speaking of cliches, they are all there on the internet, of course, where if you sniff around enough you can discover any number of hackneyed dog phrases. You can even dig up a bone from Emily Dickinson, who had a Newfoundland named Carlo: She once wrote: “Dogs are better than human beings because they know but do not tell.”
What do dogs know? All I can do is point you to an intriguing scientific study, by one Maureen Adams, published a while ago in a journal called Anthrozoos, which described itself as “A multidisciplinary journal of the interactions of people and animals.” A lot in there about fly swatters, and snake charmers, and, of course, dogs worming their way into human concerns.
Carlo’s “quiet presence helped Dickinson transform inner turmoil into poetry and suggests the transformative potential possible in any interspecies relationship,” the author concluded
Carl T. Hall is a longtime union organizer in San Francisco who is now co-owner of Word A Cafe, a dog-friendly coffee shop opening soon in the Bayview neighborhood on Third Street.
Main article photo by: GlobalP-istock