Idioms that have gone to the dogs

Idioms that have gone to the dogs

There are many dog related phrases in the English language, from barking up the wrong tree to puppy love, but what do they all mean?


Humanity’s best friend has a lot to answer for when it comes to idioms, with many of our everyday phrases in English derived from canine terms. Here’s some of the most common ones and a refresher on what exactly they mean and where they came from.


  • Dog days: Dog Days’ refers to the hottest part of the summer in the northern hemisphere (this year, it’s from July 3rd to August 11) and is connected to heat, drought and thunderstorms, which as most dog owners know can cause some erratic behaviour from four legged friends. However, the term actually comes from the star system Sirius, known as the Dog Star, which rises at this time of year.

  • Dog tired: Meaning extremely, yet satisfying tired, this term is especially used by those who have completed a good deal of physical activity. It comes from the old English tale of Alfred the Great who sent his sons out to catch his many hounds in the evenings before dinner. Whoever caught the most dogs was allowed to take his right hand side at the table – but achieving this victory always left them feeling exhausted.

  • Barking up the wrong tree: Used to describe the sense of pursuing the wrong path when trying to achieve a goal, the term originates from the USA with early records of usage in the 1830s, where it alludes to hunting dogs barking under a tree where they mistakenly think their prey is hiding.

  • Puppy love: Meaning a mild infatuation or crush, especially between young people, this term also goes back to the 1800s and refers to the love a pup gives its owner.

  • Dog-eat-dog: A dog-eat-dog world is a highly competitive one – and this term is used to refer to high stakes or ruthless situations. An old Latin saying ‘a dog does not eat the flesh of a dog’ may have given the term its start.

  • Sick as a dog: Meaning very sick to the point of vomiting, the term comes from the 17th century, when dogs were considered undesirable (we do not condone this consideration). This time and its unfathomable opinions also gave rise to some other dog-related sayings, such as ‘gone to the dogs’, meaning when things go wrong, and ‘a dog’s dinner’, meaning a mess.

  • Let sleeping dogs lie: This term is used as advice to those who are looking at bringing up issues which may cause problems. It stems back way back to the 1300s where it probably likened these situations to waking sleeping watch dogs.

  • Dog with two tails: Imagine a happy dog. Now imagine one with double the tail! This idiom describes a person who is delighted enough to wag both – and the earliest record of its usage comes from the 1820s.

  • Raining cats and dogs: Meaning raining very heavily, the origins of this phrase are unknown, but one theory is that it refers to a time when homes had thatched roofs. When it rained, cats and dogs would hide inside the thatch for shelter – and if the rain was heavy enough, they would fall through.

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