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The Canine in Conversation
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I never set out to do this project. I am not a “dog person.” Rarely have I shared a home with a dog. The whole thing started when I simply pulled on a proverbial loose thread and it turned out to be a long and interesting one.

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It began when I was playing a game with my wife and stepson on a flight to New York. In the game, cards from two decks are turned over simultaneously: one is a letter of the alphabet and the other is a category. The first player to name a member of the category starting with the letter wins the turn. The category was “Type of Dog” and the letter was “Y.” I called out “yellow dog” and they both laughed. Peggy, who can name the breed of a papered pup from the distance of 100 yards, wouldn’t have it. Sam agreed. I believe that “Yorkie” won the round. Having, at that time, recently read a description of the ubiquitous yellow dogs of the American South and the cultural symbolism attached, I remained unsatisfied with the outcome. Petty as I knew I was being, I could not let go of it. It seemed to me that while the category “dogs” includes breeds, there is no reason to restrict it to that. Why not metaphorical dogs? If the letter had been “h,” wouldn’t “hot dog” be an acceptable answer?

I began a short list of metaphorical dogs and on our return home I dug in, beginning with “yellow dog.” As it turns out, I was only partly right: the correct terminology is “yaller dog”. And the term “Hot dog” has complex and controversial origins. My curiosity piqued, I kept going. Dogs may not be my thing, but words and language have always fascinated me. Soon I was noticing metaphorical and idiomatic dogs littered in everything I read and heard.

The idea of creating an illustrated dictionary of these terms seemed like a small and satisfying project. I have always been fascinated by the juxtapositions that alphabetization creates, so the structure was attractive. The heterogeneous nature of the terms gave a broad range to the inquiry. At first I had no pretensions about being comprehensive or especially scholarly. Dogs and language were simply starting points. The written text was idiosyncratic and highly personal. I wrote about the things of interest to me. Writing about “dog” as a term for an unattractive woman became and opportunity to discuss beauty; the entry “alpha male” was framed in terms of contemporary U.S. politics. The illustrations were equally irreverent and provocative. The trouble was, I couldn’t figure out where to stop. The more I inquired, the longer the list became. I was like a dog with a bone.

Further, as I researched, wrote, and illustrated, patterns emerged. I began to form some theories about this use of language. Even in my cursory exploration, it became obvious that the majority of dog references in American English language are negative. What really caught my attention was an apparent relationship between the use of dog terms and issues of race and gender. I will never know the extent to which my preexisting interest in these subjects colored this analysis. However, I began to see, in the language, an implicit equation between dogs and those people who have been historically oppressed and marginalized in the U.S. society: women, people of color, the poor, the elderly, children, etc. I realized that there was a larger story to tell.

I began to reorganize my research on dog metaphors around this premise, while still adding to my list any new usage that came my way.

Now, you might imagine that my not being a dog person implies that I had a poor opinion of dogs. On the contrary, I tended to think of dogs as pretty good people. My analysis at this point in the project was that all of the worst traits attributed to dogs were the projection of denied aspects of human behavior, while the more positive—and less frequently alluded-to ones—were relatively true of dogs. That is, I took it for granted that dogs are loyal, but imagined bitchiness was a human projection. I am indebted to my stepson, Sam Draisin, for a key perspective that changed this completely and opened up large new areas of inquiry.

Knowing about my project, he gave me Stephen Budiansky’s The Truth About Dogs as a gift. What I discovered in reading Mr. Budiansky’s eloquent and funny discourse on the implications of recent research about the origins and nature of dogs is that I had completely idealized and romanticized them. It dawned on me that in order to form any coherent concept about why humans use references to dogs the ways that they do, I would need to know something more about the nature of the human-canine relationship and more about what dogs are actually like. This led to a wide ranging exploration of human-animal relations, theories about domestication, and studies of dog behavior. These inquiries have significantly reshaped my interpretation of the ways in which dog metaphors and idioms are related to race and gender, as well as the ways in which they speak of humans’ ambivalence about the nature of personhood in general.

Along with other revelations, I have come to see that any presumption that the process of domestication was one of domination of one species by another is the typical species-centered view that humans hold. Humans always presume that they are the leading characters in every story, but this is not necessarily so. Some researchers have made a good case for dogs adopting humans, and getting the better end of the deal, from an evolutionary point of view. At the least, I could now make a good case for dogs using their ability to manipulate human emotional responses to the great advantage of canis domesticus.

This leads to some very interesting questions that bear on our references to dogs. Do dogs “love” their humans? Or is it simply that they appear to? When I have suggested to dog owners that what appears to be affection might be merely species adaptation, the force and intensity of their defense of their dogs’ love for them can be impressively confirmatory. Perhaps the unconscious fear that dogs are actually manipulating us affects some of the terms I am discussing.

At the same time, I have been reminded that some of the habits of dogs, indeed the drives that brought them into contact with humans in the first place, are not especially savory. Dogs eat the most disgusting things, up to and including their own feces. They are scavengers; they gathered around humans because our garbage provided—and continues to provide—a powerful attraction.

These new perspectives reshaped my considerations of dog metaphors. What has emerged is this set of texts: several essays on dogs and language, as well as hundreds of entries discussing the different terms and phrases. I am, as always, indebted to my wife, life partner, and collaborator, Peggy Crawley. Without her support, challenge, and inspiration, this project would probably not exist. It certainly would be much poorer in quality. My stepson Sam contributed numerous references and thoughtful critique. My mother, whose own interest in colloquial and regional use of language provided inspiration and support. Philip Dangler, comma hound extraordinaire, provided significant copywriting assistance. Cindy Matison, the interlibrary loan librarian at the California Institute of Integral Studies labored long and hard on my behalf. Any errors are my responsibility not theirs. Many thanks.

Alec MacLeod
April 2008

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