Why is “dog” one of the great mysteries of the English language?

Behind the simplest words one can often find the most compelling questions. Take for example, “dog.”

Canis familiaris, also known as “dog,” is essentially a domesticated wolf. The dog is a member of the Canidae family, like the jackal and the fox.

About seven centuries ago, the word “hound,” which came from the Old English hund, was the word for all domestic canines. “Dog” was just used to refer to a subgroup of hounds that includes the lovely but frequently slobbering mastiff.

Of course, the opposite is now true. We use dog to talk about all of man’s best friends, from lovable golden retrievers to panting chow chows. And hound is now used to indicate a type of dog used just for hunting. Hound especially refers to a dog with a long face and large, droopy ears. Linguists still speculate about the reversal of fortune for “hound” and “dog.” One idea suggests that the sub-breed known as “dogs” became so populous that “dog” simply became the generic term (sort of an animal equivalent of the way brand names can become so ubiquitous that they start to be used as a general term for their purpose.)

The number of uses of “dog” is remarkable even by the standards of the dictionary. We call sleazy men dogs. We also call our feet dogs. A worthless object, such as a wobbly, rusty bike, is also called a dog.

(Don’t forget about the hot dog. Read about the gross but amazing origin of this dish, here.)

There also seems to be an endless number of idioms incorporating the word, such as “sick as a dog.”

The expressions “a dog’s life” and “go to the dogs” likely refer to a time when the animals were used primarily for hunting and not kept as pets.

The phrase “put on the dog” means to “get dressed up.” It may refer to the stiff, stand-up shirt collars (also known as dog collars) that were all the rage in the late nineteenth century.

A dog-eared page is named after the way many dogs’ ears fold down, as opposed to the perky, upright wolf ear.

Employing the phrase “hair of the dog” to talk about using alcohol as a hangover cure may be as old as drinking itself. The first recorded use is with Pliny, the ancient Roman writer.

We would be remiss if we didn’t throw a bone to cat lovers. Who is the “Tom” that “tomcats” are named for? Find out this fun feline fact, here.


  1. Lee -  February 9, 2015 - 5:33 pm

    Go back a little further in history… “dog” is traditionally a male hound, and is also a male fox. Now we call them studs and sires… unfortunately I can’t tell you what we call the females. Odd how words get so twisted through time.

  2. kcfresh -  November 2, 2014 - 11:17 pm

    i have a german shepard.wit a standing hair..he’s so cute..his name is terry..nd guess wat! Hes already a genious in sign nd vocal languages..and am very sure that very soon he will start teaching english language in sklu..lol…i am a lover of pet,dogs expecially

  3. sdfsdf -  July 24, 2013 - 12:09 pm


  4. Francis -  April 14, 2011 - 1:20 pm

    A discussion about dogs? Wow, you people really have time to waste.

  5. DTK513 -  March 7, 2011 - 5:00 pm

    A Dog-Eat-Dog World…

  6. Xzurihni -  February 17, 2011 - 11:52 am

    Why does everything with a tail have a story behind it?

  7. Whiskers -  February 17, 2011 - 5:13 am

    God created Dogs so man could know what it feels like to be worshiped. Then He created Cats to bring man back to reality.

  8. Ooga Booga -  February 16, 2011 - 11:38 am

    I have a 102lb. long haired german shepard dog…..he run’s the family. I don’t think he knows he is our pet dog…..we are his pet people.

  9. Cass -  February 8, 2011 - 2:51 pm

    Did you guys not see that he was writing a script? When you write it’s ok to tweak things.

  10. Kate -  November 2, 2010 - 9:25 am

    I like the dog picture they chose for the article! Dogs are great but i love animals of all kinds. Oh, and did that Ray guy really think that Eve was Adam’s sister? Ha.

  11. smoothius -  October 28, 2010 - 7:33 am

    dogs definitely rule! they love you unconditionally. they want to please you. they want to be with you always. they defend and protect you. they truly are man’s best friend.

  12. smoothius -  October 28, 2010 - 7:28 am

    other dog referenced sayings:
    every dog has his day
    that dog won’t hunt
    dog days of summer

  13. Amy-Lou -  October 25, 2010 - 8:00 am

    I have a long legged short haired chihuahua. His name is oliver and he is so cute and playful!!! Also I have a dog named remme and he is half chihuahua and half shih shu, So therefore he is a shichuahua. Hehe try saying it, it’s really fun to say: shichuahua. LoL.

  14. #1 Skillet Fan -  October 22, 2010 - 4:11 pm

    I have a mini shnaucher half yorkie mix. Called a snorkie

  15. alexa13 -  October 22, 2010 - 8:26 am

    i have a german sheperd halp wolf it amazin

  16. Dutchie -  October 21, 2010 - 7:11 am

    Interestingly, in Dutch the meaning of hound (hond) and dog (dog) are not reversed! ‘Hond’ is still the general word, and ‘dog’ refers to a subcategory (indeed including Mastiffs and Great Danes).

  17. The Plane of Apes -  October 20, 2010 - 6:22 pm

    In a short story of Kafka, a son who was invited for his best friend’s funeral was about to turn his life of a dog saw his father who had been laid up in bed for a while,springing up from his bed.

    And the dog goes back into the wild.

  18. DOGS | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  October 20, 2010 - 2:32 pm

    [...] DOGS! ROUSSEAU says, “It’s Deja vu all over again.” quoting Yogi Berra. — A whispering DOG and amusing and like “Travels with Charley” by Steinbeck, where Charley was a Standard Poodle, — Such is Rousseau, though Apricot, still knows how to use his noodle. — Some consider it a compliment when someone says Harley’s are HOGS and we take it as such if one should look at our lives and say “We’ve gone to the Dogs”. –>>Rupert L.T.Rhyme [...]

  19. carie oliquino -  October 20, 2010 - 2:01 pm

    wow soooo many random cooments O_O hey if u like wolves or vamps go to immortalnight.com

  20. Mariah -  October 20, 2010 - 1:04 pm

    I love Pitbulls also i was rased with 72 of thim in my life.

  21. Mariah -  October 20, 2010 - 12:59 pm

    I love all kinds of animals. also this dog is so cute.

  22. louis paiz -  October 19, 2010 - 7:20 am

    the dog is also can it may be beacause as you say is desendiet from the canis may deduction is that when a dog eats it does not chew but (rasga)form where the name of tooths are caninos also the walking stick is calleda can. dogs has been have had many uses including transportation or pulling of goods inthe arthic . thanks

  23. ms.karma -  October 18, 2010 - 10:08 pm

    i like dogs but i hate it when i see their fur/hair scattered on the floor, sofa, wherever. i like carrying them but i don’t want some hair left on my clothes.

  24. Jocantha Telsey -  October 16, 2010 - 9:14 pm

    awww such a cute little doggy…..

  25. rameshwar -  October 16, 2010 - 2:51 am


  26. --MISS_LIYAH 2U-- -  October 15, 2010 - 9:43 pm

    um @Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry EVE WASN’T ADAMS’ LITTLE SISTER!!! I just had to let you know so dont take it personal!!! k??!?!?!!?!? ;-) :-) deuces!!!!!

  27. abc -  October 15, 2010 - 6:35 pm

    some moron consider himself dog or god.

  28. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  October 15, 2010 - 5:20 pm

    P.S. For dressing-up it would be more formally correct to say, ‘putting on the crocodile’,– both because that’s what the cummerbund looks like, and, because the gods early-on dressed in fishskins, complete with the tail … And so goes the world-tale that the great flood was caused by mistreating a trout….


  29. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  October 15, 2010 - 5:15 pm

    In my first version of my screenplay, ARCHAEODUS “Adam in Eden,” Adam got to name the animals: DOG, because it had a short tail (docked), ELEPHANT, because it lifted up so high (‘levant), BEE, because it made a sound like “Bbbb…” or “Vvvv…” … And later little Eve his sister had pet names, and said such as– “Come-on, Go-at, It’s time to go-at your dinner….”


    ‘It was late– the boob-tube looked like a hound’s tooth on-the-fritz…’

  30. Why do you care -  October 15, 2010 - 5:05 pm

    personaliy, i like cats better….
    but i guess dogs are ok too…….
    except one of those small dogs that bark like, hystrically when it see things bigger than itself (which is pretty much everything…..)

  31. Waldo Pepper -  October 15, 2010 - 4:24 pm

    Umm, Gabriella…your (not YOu’re) writing could use some work as well.

    Just saying.

  32. Michael Dadona -  October 15, 2010 - 4:16 pm

    I like the term for “Dog Fight” used in air war field shown that every ‘dog’ involved is an intelligent ‘dog’.

  33. Mark V -  October 15, 2010 - 3:50 pm

    but hounds are most famous for being used for hunting/tracking.

    Your comprehension is atrocious. 0 stars.

    Some days you’re the dog, others you’re the hydrant.

  34. privmic18 -  October 15, 2010 - 3:32 pm

    Oh…somebody beat me to it.

  35. privmic18 -  October 15, 2010 - 3:31 pm

    How about “Dog Day Afternoon”?

  36. lee king -  October 15, 2010 - 3:14 pm

    Here’s a Dialogue of me of my friend without too may words spoken.

    Me:YO DOOOG (smiling)

    Friend: WHAT UP DOG?

    Me: Dog…. A-DOG YOU HERE ABOUT THE game last night?

    Friend: Dog did I hear??!! Dog it was the business.

    Me: Dog you know it.

    Friend: Dog I holla back attcha.

    Me: Coo Dog run back thru again, For real Dog!!

    Friend: Aaat Dog dam holla.


  37. Scott -  October 15, 2010 - 3:03 pm

    I would try to come up with a witty comment about this article but I am sick as a dog.

  38. Gibba -  October 15, 2010 - 3:01 pm

    i would like to have an siberian husky/ wolf mix

  39. Meredith -  October 15, 2010 - 2:55 pm

    What about the slang term referring to human friends as “dogs”? What up dog? Which is just a friendly hello, how are you doing.

  40. cLaus**, -  October 15, 2010 - 2:37 pm

    interesting! just like the newest dell venue pro which is using windows phone 7!!

  41. Gabriella T -  October 15, 2010 - 2:07 pm

    HOund dogs are not exclusively used for “hunting”…that was a silly partisan opinion. YOu’re writing needs work.
    2 stars.

  42. Scott -  October 15, 2010 - 1:37 pm

    How about when you are “dogging it” at an athletic workout or practice?

  43. Lez -  October 15, 2010 - 1:32 pm

    It was changed to Canis Lupus Familiaris in 1993 to recognise that it is a sub species of the Grey Wolf.. canis lupus

  44. Order23 -  October 15, 2010 - 1:29 pm

    Dog day afternoon
    Dog and pony show
    Dogged (weighed down with) or Dogged (Perseveres)
    Dog fight
    Dog teeth
    Dog wood
    Dog clutch
    Dog leg

  45. bob -  October 15, 2010 - 1:17 pm

    cool stuff about dogs

  46. bob -  October 15, 2010 - 1:16 pm


  47. Liane -  October 15, 2010 - 1:09 pm

    That’s one doggone good article! It’s fun to see so many of them all in one place with their origins. Where would we be without the dogs in our lives? After all that I’m dog tired. I think I need a cat(?) nap…

  48. Bob Zimmerman -  October 15, 2010 - 1:08 pm

    I like dogs. But what is a dog any more? People have bred the dog into a great variety of different shapes and sizes. And many of these designer bred poor creatures have physical and possible mental defects as a result. When I look at a “cute” or “adorable” bred type of dog I feel I am really looking at a deformed dog-that’s what really many of these poor creatures are really. Just look at the English Bull dog with his deformed face and mouth struggling to breath. And the little stubbly legs that make it all but impossible for the poor creature to lie flat on the ground.

  49. Shawn -  October 15, 2010 - 1:07 pm

    I like the fact that dog spelled backwards is God

  50. CarolAnn -  October 15, 2010 - 1:05 pm

    Dogs are loyal. They are always there. When a person comes home the dog is always there waiting or looking out the window. Then the dog runs to you. Dogs are your best friends.

  51. anonymous -  October 15, 2010 - 11:57 am

    To Michelle; when they say dog down the hatches we are referring to the locks themselves also known as dogs. The term is used to make it easier to us sailors to remember because it is important to keep no-essential hatches closed at all times. They would ingrain that in our mind and we would automatically know that if a hatch is close and the dogs are not aiming down then something is wrong and that should be corrected (by pulling the dog the down)

  52. AJ -  October 15, 2010 - 11:56 am

    You people get up early
    i love pitbulls

  53. G-bee -  October 15, 2010 - 10:55 am

    um…okay.i have a golden retriever. the end.

  54. dustin -  October 15, 2010 - 10:31 am

    As a dog lover, it’s fun to see the interesting facts behind the word. For those that are interested, National Geographic has a very interesting show about how dogs became a part of human life. Worth checking out!

  55. Jack Cervantes -  October 15, 2010 - 10:24 am

    It’s a dog eat dog world.

  56. cop 10 -  October 15, 2010 - 10:12 am

    let us sleeping dog lie.

  57. manh pham -  October 15, 2010 - 8:28 am

    Cats and dogs are man’s best friends. Now they are friendly pets and
    live and play together under the same roof. No more wars between them. Yet, we still say ” It’s raining cats and dogs” to describe “very havy rain”, resulting from their usual fights when seeing each other. Is it contradictory? The English language nuances are worth dealing with.

  58. Stephanie -  October 15, 2010 - 7:31 am

    Dog is Love.

  59. Amy-lou -  October 15, 2010 - 7:28 am

    I guess what they say is true: Life sucks and then you die……yeah I should be so lucky.

  60. Say What? -  October 15, 2010 - 7:23 am

    I enjoyed this site. I love history, so this site is right up my alley. My perfect dog? A black lab. He’s loving, smart, protective, and best of all, trainable. If I ever get to have another big yard, I will get another lab before I buy anything else.

  61. ...g... -  October 15, 2010 - 7:20 am

    …doggone it, i still don’t know where the word comes from…

  62. jgolden -  October 15, 2010 - 7:11 am

    What does an agnostic, dyslexic insomniac do?

    Lays awake all night wondering if there really is a dog.

  63. jakewes -  October 15, 2010 - 6:38 am

    It’s a dog’s life…

  64. Amy-lou -  October 15, 2010 - 6:31 am

    It’s funny and yet sad. My best friend malika moved to Georgia and now my best friend christopher is moveing there. This sucks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  65. Jim SHELLHAMMER -  October 15, 2010 - 6:24 am


  66. Dave Wurmstein -  October 15, 2010 - 6:17 am

    Hasn’t the scientific name of the dog been changed from its own species “canis familiaris” to a subspecies of wolf “canis lupus domesticus”?

  67. michele -  October 15, 2010 - 5:30 am

    what about “dog down the hatches” a sailing term that basically means to lock or make tight the doors and windows.

  68. COP10 now held in Nagoya -  October 15, 2010 - 4:26 am

    Talking about a dog, about a few decades ago some critic quote as saying about a novel “a base novel based on a base”–I guess it is inevitable for artists.

    Some artists manage to eschew that but has become as qrotesque as Andy Warhole.

    It just pops up in my mind.

  69. RadonYourMom -  October 15, 2010 - 3:03 am

    who cares what a fail

  70. alorah -  October 15, 2010 - 2:24 am

    dog (esp. a puppy) is one of my favorite pet animal…. isn’t cute! =) How about you, what pet would you like to have? or have already?

  71. alorah -  October 15, 2010 - 2:17 am

    I like dog so much……


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