Why do we say “hair of the dog” and other dog-related phrases? | TeamDogs

Why do we say “hair of the dog” and other dog-related phrases?

There are a number of dog-related words and sayings in common use

Caroline Abbott

Posted 2 months ago ago

A "drunk" dog (Photo: Fernando Trabanco Fotografía/Getty Images)

by Caroline Abbott

Millions of us are expected to watch England play their Euro 2020 semi-final match against Denmark tonight, and many will have a few alcoholic drinks in celebration or commiseration at the result. Some will probably get a hangover, and a few might decide to cure it by having more alcohol. But why is this known as the hair of the dog – and where do other dog-related words and phrases such as hot dog and doggy bag come from?

Hair of the dog

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, the expression “hair of the dog”, for an alcoholic drink taken to cure a hangover, is a shortened version of “a hair of the dog that bit you”. This comes from an old belief that someone bitten by a rabid dog could be cured of rabies by taking a potion containing some of the dog’s hair. The suggestion is that, although alcohol may be to blame for the hangover – as the dog is for the attack – a smaller portion of the same will, paradoxically, act as a cure. But don’t blame us if your boss doesn’t accept this as an excuse for your state at work – there’s no scientific evidence that the cure for either a hangover or rabies actually works.

Hot dog

Have you ever wondered why a sausage in a bun is sometimes called a hot dog? The exact origins of the hot dog are contested but there are several interesting theories, including one stating that it’s because consumption of dog meat used to be common in Germany – where sausage culture began. Some say they were known as Dachshund or “little dog” sausages because of their resemblance to the shape of this breed. Some say street vendors would shout “get your Dachshund sausages while they’re red hot!” and when a cartoonist drew a popular cartoon depicting this, he didn’t know how to spell Dachshund so simply wrote “hot dog”. The bread was added to make the hot sausage easier to hold.

Doggy bag

A doggy bag is a container into which leftovers from a meal out can be put and taken home and given to the dog. The term has been in use since 1957, although the practice started around the 6th century B.C. when dinner guests would use napkins to wrap up food to take home. Since the Second World War, people have been encouraged to feed leftovers to their pets to reduce food waste. Eating out at restaurants took off in the 1960s, and ever since – especially in the US where portion sizes are larger – it has become common to ask for a doggy bag. Sometimes, of course, dogs don’t get a look-in as the owners want the food for themselves.


An underdog is a person or group in a competition – especially in sports – who is largely expected to lose. This term is originally American and comes from 19th century dog fights when two dogs attacked each other. The loser was called the underdog and the winner was top dog.


A dogsbody is a person who is given boring or unpleasant jobs that people who are considered more important do not want to do, especially a junior in an office. In the early 19th century, it was British Navy slang referring to unappetising pease pudding (dried peas boiled in a bag) which was one of their staple foods. In the 20th century it was applied to low-ranked sailors who did menial tasks and then it became more common in non-naval usage. The term has not always been derogatory and a number of people deliberately used it as their call sign or handle, including Douglas Bader, an RAF fighter pilot during the Second World War.


A dog ear is a folded down corner of a book page, which can serve as a bookmark. The term arises from the fact that the ears of many breeds of dog flap over. If a paper object is dog-eared, it means its corners are worn or battered with use. The first known use of this term was in 1767.

Dog days

The ancient Romans called the hottest, most humid days of summer “dog days” because they occurred around the day when Sirius appeared to rise just before the sun, in late July. Sirius was known as the Dog Star because it was the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (large dog). The hottest time of the year was a period of inactivity or decline as it could bring fever or even catastrophe.

Gone to the dogs

If something has gone to the dogs, it has been ruined. Some say it comes from the fact that attending greyhound races was thought likely to expose a person to moral danger and the risk of incurring great financial loss. Others say it refers to anything decayed and worthless that wasn’t fit for humans, particularly food. Another school of thought says the expression comes from ancient China when dogs were not permitted within the walls of cities. Stray dogs roamed the areas outside the city walls and lived off the rubbish thrown out of the city. Criminals and social outcasts were often expelled from cities so went to live among the dogs and rubbish.

Sick as a dog

This phrase, meaning extremely ill, dates back to the early 1700s, when diseases such as the plague were often spread via animals like rats and dogs.

The tail that wags the dog

This is used to describe a situation where an important or powerful person or organisation is controlled by someone or something much less important or powerful. The first recorded use of the expression was in 1872.

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