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illustration of a man in a long billed cap eating a hot dog
figure 1  

 

dog-eat-dog world. Competitive circumstances.

A dog-eat-dog world presumes one of Darwinian competition. Like the corruption of Darwin 's famous phrase, “Survival of the fittest” (subtly but vastly different from “survival of the fit” which is the concept about which he actually wrote), a dog-eat-dog world is one in which you must eat or be eaten. The validity of this description was supported implicitly and explicitly by Konrad Lorenz, who saw nature as “red in tooth and claw.” Contemporary animal behaviorists and ecologists have challenged or augmented this view by noting the balance between cooperation and competition and Lorenz's ideas have been largely discredited.

 

 

 

The description provides specious (and species-ist) justification for ruthless and selfish behavior. If you were to embrace such an ontology of competition, you would probably regret it when you arrived at the Pearly Gates, presuming you even got that far. All I can say is DON'T DO IT! There are numerous idioms with similar implications: “it's a jungle out there” or “it's a rat race.” Note that the references to animality remain in all of these, as if competition is reserved for animals.

The reference is not specifically negative. Those who relish competition and competitive environments may evoke it as a glorification. In Calvin Trillin's book about parking in New York, he says: “It's dog eat dog. You want it easy? Go to Elmira.”reference 1
1. Gussow, Mel. 2002. For Trillin, Parking Is an End, Not a Means. New York Times, Feb 12, B3.

Wilton 's Phrase Origins says that this phrase first appeared in 1931, but they don't say in what publication this was.reference 2 Wilton does attempt to be more scholarly by referring to a quotation from the Oxford English Dictionary about how dogs don't eat dogs from the year eighteen something or other.reference 3 M.K. Holder is more blunt: “cannibalism [among dogs] is unusual, but has been documented in canids and humans.”reference 4 What may be more to the point is that among their pack, dogs are far more cooperative than competitive. It is we humans who would like to affirm our behavior by making it parallel with that of dogs. After all, we—not dogs—coined this phrase.

still shot from the television show Cheers showing character Norm Peterson drinking a beer
figure 2  

For many of us, however, the dog-eat-dog world is not attractive, if not unfamiliar. Perhaps it is best summed up in an opening gag from the television show, Cheers:

Woody: How's it going Mr. Peterson?
Norm: It's a dog eat dog world, Woody, and I'm wearing Milk-Bone underwear.reference 5

2. Wilton, David. 2001. Wilton 's Word & Phrase Origins. wordorigins.org. Accessed from http:// www.wordorigins.org/.

3. The Oxford English Dictionary. 1989. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

4. Holder, M. K. 2001. Animal Proverbs & Clichés. Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior. Accessed Sep 19 2001 from http:// www.indiana.edu/ ~animal/ fun/wordplay/proverbs.htm.

 

 

5. Casey, Peter, and David Lee and C. B. Charles. 1986. The Peterson Principle. In Cheers. Feb 13.

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About the illustrations: Figure 1: A dog eating a dog, © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.

Figure 2 shows Cheers character Norm Peterson hoisting a beer. This image is copyrighted and unlicensed. I believe that the use of this scaled-down, low-resolution portion of an image to illustrate the article “dog eat dog world” qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

cf: doggie-dog world Last updated: July 5, 2008
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