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The Canine in Conversation
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illustration showing a dog dancing while a cat plays a violin


little dog. This is most commonly a reference to a literary dog and not a metaphorical one: specifically, the dog who laughed when he saw the cow jump over the moon, and apparently allowing the dish to decamp with some flatware.

In the New Oxford Book of English Verse, Helen Gardner offers a wonderful list of things for which this dog, and the nonsense rhyme (Hey Diddle Diddle) as a whole, are not metaphors. The contents range from the flight from the rising waters in ancient Egypt to the Earl of Leicester. It is, she says, “Probably the best-known nonsense verse in the language [and] a considerable amount of nonsense has been written about it.”reference 1 It becomes yet another example of the ways in which dogs can be the tabulae rasae for projection.

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a star chart showing the constellation Canis Minor spacer
figure 2

One of the items to which the nursery rhyme does not refer is the constellation Canis Minor, which is sometimes called the little dog.reference 2 It has also been known as Procyon, which is also the name of the brightest star in the constellation.reference 3 Procyon is so called because it clears the horizon just a while before Sirius, the Dog Star, which is the brightest star in Canis Major, the constellation sometimes known as the Big Dog. In Greek, pro=before and cyno=dog, hence Procyon.



1. Gardner, Helen Louise. 1972. The New Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1950. New York: Oxford University Press.

2. The Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. 3d ed. Accessed from http://

3. Falconer, William, and William Burney. 1816. Falconer's New Universal Dictionary of the Marine. London: Chatham. 356.


About the illustrations: Figure 1 is from the Volland edition of Mother Goose; this is an excerpt from the drawing by Justin Gruelle.reference 4 © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.

Figure 2 is from a star chart that appeared in a Funk and Wagnalls.reference 5 © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.

3. Gruelle, Justin C. 1929. A Mother Goose Parade. Joliet, New York: P. F. Volland Co.

4. Funk, Isaac Kaufman. 1903. A Standard Dictionary of the English Language. new ed. New York, London: Funk & Wagnalls.  
see also: big dog; dog star Last updated: July 24, 2009
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