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The Canine in Conversation
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Dog getting book off shelf: Introduction

 

Introduction

All knowledge, the totality of all questions and answers, is contained in the dog.
—Franz Kafka, “Investigations of a Dog”

 

 

 

 

The Canine in Conversation: Dogs in Metaphor and Idiom Illustrated considers the ways in which dogs and the habits of dogs and their owners are referred to in everyday English, primarily in the United States. This project is presented as a series of essays ranging in length from a few lines to several thousand words. While dogs and language are the gravitational centers of these texts, the contents are wide ranging and reflect my personal interests as much as they are centered on canines in conversation. The ideas and information included here are grounded as much as possible in the work of recognized scholars and, where relevant, empirical data. I have tried to be meticulous in citing my sources (a practice that I wish more writers about language would adopt). I approach this project with the assumption that knowledge is socially constructed and contextually significant. I hope that you find these documents provocative and intriguing. If nothing else, I hope you never hear a reference to a dog quite the same way again.

The Canine in Conversation is both a ready reference for the meanings, origins, and implications of various words and expressions and also a reflection on what we can learn about our society by examining the ways in which these terms are employed. You can dip in as desired just to get a factoid or two, or engage the collection. At the center are the “Entries,” essays presented in alphabetical sequence from “Alpha Male” to “You're the Man now dog.” These are discussions of the specific terms and phrases that I have identified as making reference to dogs or doggish ways. For the more comprehensive reader, the work opens with the essay “Dog as Self and Other.” The final essay in the Entries, “You’re the Man now dog,” examines a catch phrase from the film Finding Forrester, not so much because of its everyday use, but because of what the use of this line tells us about dogs, men, and race in U.S. society. The work closes with several appendices of dog names, whether for plants and animals, places or people. While these are not metaphorical uses specifically, they do reflect many of the cultural issues I raise in this work.

In “Dogs as Self and Other,” I explore what I believe to be the cultural, social, psychological, and biological dynamics that encourage this usage. You don't have to be a linguist or etymologist to notice that dog metaphors and idioms are overwhelmingly negative in nature. The simple addition of the word “dog” as a modifier to relatively neutral words such as “life” (it's a dog's life) or “face” (dogface) makes the word or phrase a negative pejorative. I propose that a dog’s position as a high-status animal and—simultaneously—a low-status person, invites this aspect of dog references. I argue that this position supports the use of dogs as stand-ins for other categories of quasi-persons, typically those marginalized and oppressed. While providing the keynote for this collection, this essay is not comprehensive. Any attempt to formulate general principles for interpreting or understanding all the references in these texts would be folly, given the 10,000 year history of human-dog companionship and the ubiquity of dogs in human societies.

The Entries range from a brief comment to extensive discussion. While there is no strict formulation, I have tried to include: a) a short definition; b) what I know of the origin and development of each term or phrase; c) a visual illustration or two; and d) examples of usage. One of the greatest challenges I faced in putting this collection together was in deciding what to include on the list. Most—but hardly—all were obvious. Some of the phrases and words are frequently—but not always exclusively—associated with dogs. These include terms that, for my purposes, were critical, such as “pedigree” and “purebred.” Some may criticize of the inclusion of terms that are phonetically, but not etymologically, related to dogs. That is, they share the sound dâg with the word dog; these include dogma and doggerel. I have taken the position that to exclude them would be etymological fallacy. The sound evokes the association and, I believe, it is nearly impossible to read or hear these terms without thinking of dogs. Trickier were those terms that are native to other English-speaking societies and less common here in the U.S. For instance, I did not include the phrase “dog’s bollocks” until I heard it employed in an Oscar ceremony acceptance speech.

The attentive reader will discover that there are many points on which entries are inconsistent with the concepts outlined in the keynote essay, and also with one another. This reflects the realities of the project. The dynamic of a living language, especially one that borrows from as many other languages and traditions as American English does, defeats attempts to find broad explanations for usage.

If you make it through these texts, you may conclude that language is going to the dogs. You may wish that whoever let the dogs out would call them off. At the very least, you may have a bone or two to pick every time someone calls on dogs to make a point or call you a name.

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Last updated: April 1, 2008
by Alec MacLeod 2001-2008  Dogmatic Technologies Oakland Creative Commons unless otherwise expressly stated, all original material of whatever nature created by Alec MacLeod and included in The Canine in Conversation and any related pages, is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Please read the Terms of Use Agreement by Alec MacLeod Dogmatic Technologies