Man’s best friend


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26 January 2022
Dogs have been our close companions for centuries, so it’s not surprising that they feature in so many of our proverbs and sayings.


Some of the oldest proverbs (and the first known recorded one) are about dogs. Dating back 4,000 years to the days of ancient Sumer and Assyria they offer such gems of wisdom as: ‘A dog which is played with turns into a puppy’, ‘In the city with no dogs, the fox is boss’, and more bafflingly ‘The bitch in her hurry whelps blind pups’. 

The latter makes less sense to us with the distance of time, but was popular and well enough understood to spread around the world, eventually making it as far east as Pakistan, south to Ethiopia, and north and west to Europe and Britain.

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‘Love me, love my dog’ is a well-known saying.


Many common proverbs are uncomplimentary about dogs. When Bernard of Clairvaux declared ‘Love me, love my dog’ during a sermon in 1150, it’s unlikely he was thinking of a real dog, but alluding to the fact that you should embrace someone’s faults as well as their good points. Since then it’s been attributed to many people, and it’s probable that it wasn’t even originated by St Bernard (no relation to the St Bernard the breed of dogs are associated with), but that he was simply quoting an already well-known saying. In later years the proverb inspired a picture painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, a story by humourist PG Wodehouse, and was a hit in the 1975 UK pop charts for Alvin Stardust.


Often attributed to 18th century British politician and first prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, this proverb is actually much older, making its first appearance in print around 1380 in Geoffrey Chaucer’s epic poem ‘Troilus and Criseyde’. ‘It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake’ he observed, evidently having noted that dogs may behave unpredictably if suddenly disturbed from their slumber. By the mid-1500s the saying had become sufficiently established that John Heywood included it in his definitive collection of proverbs, carrying the metaphorical interpretation of ‘leave well alone’ as well as its more literal sense. 


Nowadays ‘man’s best friend’ is a common colloquialism, but dogs weren’t always held to be so. Until the 19th century, when attitudes began to change and they became regarded as cherished companions who possessed feelings and personalities, many lived a miserable existence, leading to sayings such as ‘dog poor’, ‘to lead a dog’s life’, ‘not fit for a dog’, and of course ‘dog sick’ — more usually phrased nowadays as being ‘sick as a dog’. 

That great lover of Italian Greyhounds, Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712 – 1786) was the first to coin the phrase ‘Dog is man’s best friend’, but it was Missouri lawyer George Graham Vest who made it famous.

Read the rest of the feature in the February 2022 issue. Buy the latest digital edition and read instantly on your computer, mobile or tablet device.

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