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small dog inside what appears to be a rifle sight
figure 1  


dead dog. Even more worthless than a live dog, apparently.

Sounds like a threat to me, as in “You're a dead dog,” i.e., I'm gonna get you. But I cannot seem to find anyone who supports this notion. Definitions generally run towards the typical worthlessness associated with dogs. This phrase appears in the Bible, giving it a certain cachet.reference 1 According to biblical scholar Charles Spurgeon, “The term dead dog is the most expressive of all terms of contempt...”reference 2

Nietzsche no doubt plays off of this idea in Thus Spake Zarathustra, when our hero takes up with a tightrope walker. Having introduced the acrobat as superhuman, Zarathustra creates the opposite image when the performer falls to his death. The crowd describes him as a “dead dog.” It is a crucial moment for the narrator, who sees that however daring the human, society offers no middle ground for failure. As Adrian Delcaro puts it in his discussion of this passage, “Zarathustra promised them a superhuman and a life surpassing anything that humans had lived heretofore, but what people actually get, from their perspective is a terrifying letdown in the form of a less-than-human, a dog and a dead dog at that.”reference 3

Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson mixed up the dog metaphors in discussing how his constituents keep him from getting too big for his britches. “They don't want any white papers or lengthy explanations. They won't allow us to go ‘big dog.’ You go ‘big dog’ and you're a ‘dead dog.’”reference 4

Then, of course, there is the juvenile rewriting of “I'm looking over a four leaf clover” as “I'm looking over my dead dog rover.”reference 5 I recall this one from my childhood, though nothing beyond the first line.

1. Brewer, E. Cobham. 2000. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898. Accessed Sept 5 2001 from http:// 81/5138.html.

2. Spurgeon, C. H., and Alistair Begg. 2003. Morning and Evening: A New Edition of the Classic Devotional Based on the Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Rev. and updated ed. Wheaton , Ill.: Crossway Books.


3. Del Caro, Adrian. 2004. Grounding the Nietzsche Rhetoric of Earth. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 411-412.

4. Tolchin, Martin. 1983. Potent Bloc from Rockies in Senate. New York Times, July 2, 7.

5. Mayfield, Josh. 2001. Dead Dog Rover.Idle Child. Accessed Sep 5 2001 from http:// songs/deaddogrover.htm
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illustration of an empty bottle and glass spacer
figure 2


2. An empty liquor bottle.reference 6

My mom referred to empties of this kind as “dead soldiers,” an even more gruesome term, now that I think about it. I have asked around and indeed some bar dogs have heard empties referred to as dead dogs.

6. Haber, Tom Burns. 1965. Canine Terms Applied to Human Beings and Human Events: Part II. American Speech 40 (4): 247.

About the illustrations: Figure 1 shows a dog that has been targeted. Image by the author.

Figure 2 shows and empty bottle and glass. © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.

cf: die like a dog Last updated: June 21, 2008
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