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cartoon image of underdog as a shoeshine boy
figure 1  

 

underdog. The weaker party in a competition,reference 1or one who is in a state of inferiority or subjection.reference 2

The reference is to the process of domination and submission discussed at length in other entries, notably alpha male and pack mentality. The submissive dog rolls over, abasing itself, literally putting itself under. The allusion does not translate directly, however. While dogs are generally willing to accept this subservient role, humans in US society are apparently less willing to accept it, or at least less likely to admit to accepting it. The result is that—in our supposedly classless society where really only a very few can be at the top—there is always the hope and even the expectation of a change of fortune. At the same time , there is a kind of reverse snobbery, most likely as a substitute for our despair , that we are likely to remain well below the top rungs regardless of how high we climb. As a lifelong New York Yankees hater (and a longtime Red Sox fan) I have strong personal feelings in favor of the underdog and a perverse distrust of those who wish to associate themselves with winners.

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cartoon image of underdog in his superhero costume spacer
figure 2

At the same time, it is no surprise that those of us who have long suffered in the subservient role yearn for a role model, a glimmer of hope that the downtrodden can rise up and be victorious. Whether these myths of the underdog rising to the top against all odds are inspirational or designed simply to placate the lower classes by holding out vain hope for change, they are popular and ubiquitous.

The origin is from the 19th century. One possibility is David Barker's poem “The Under-Dog in the Fight,” date unknown. The other is Dennar Stuart's “Camp-Meeting in Tennessee” in Harper's 26(151):97-102. “And, bretheren, you and I know that occasionally, if not oftener, I've been the under-dog in the fight. ...”

1. Przybyla, Leon H. 2001. English Metaphors. Leon's EFL Planet. Accessed Oct 24 2001 from http:// efl.htmlplanet.com/ metaphors.htm.

2. The Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. 3d ed. Accessed Mar 6 2005 from http:// dictionary.oed.com.

3. Wilson, Douglas G. 2002. Re: Origin of Word “Underdog”. American Dialect Society Mailing List. American Dialect Society. Accessed Jun 2 2008 from http:// listserv.linguistlist.org/ cgi-bin/ wa?A2= ind0212A&L= ADS-L&P= R358&I=-3&m= 27606.

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About the illustrations: The Underdog show ran on Saturday mornings from 1964-1973. The character was created by Joe Harris and had the voice of Wally Cox.reference 4 Figure 1 shows the downtrodden Shoeshine Boy (note the explicit reference to subservience, low status and the implicit racialization) looking dejected. Figure 2 shows our hero in his guise as Underdog, the rhyming superhero. 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 “underdog” qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. 4. Clawson, D. J. 2001. Underdog. DJ Clawson's Underdog Home Page. Geocities. Accessed Feb 6 2001 from http:// www.geocities.com/ SoHo/ 8850/ udog.htm.
see also: runt; pack mentality
cf:
alpha male; top dog; lead dog; leader of the pack
Last updated: June 2, 2008
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