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dog idioms

Writing doggedly: dog idioms from around Europe

In film and literature dogs are often shown as the protagonist’s companion through thick and thin. Dog owners will tell you that their pets are loyal and loving – yet the portrayal of dogs in many languages shows that man’s best friend is often regarded as lowly in status. You can read this earlier post about the word dog and associated phrases in English, but the English language is not the only culprit. The recurring themes in common idioms in languages such as French, German, Italian, and Spanish, are those of:

  • low status/ worthlessness
  • futility
  • unhappiness
  • competition/ aggression

Below is an example from each of these languages, indicating the way in which dogs have been perceived idiomatically around Europe.

Es el mismo perro con diferente collar

The Spanish use this figure of speech to say that nothing much has changed. Literally, the translation is it’s the same dog with a different collar. Similar to the English ‘same old, same old’, it refers to a situation that is repeated with slight variations. Usually used to refer to people, it implies that although that person may appear to have changed, they will still behave and think in a certain way. This links to the English idiom that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, reiterating how arduous change can be. Dogs everywhere, it seems, are renowned for sticking to their habits.

Entre chien et loup

The French have many canine themed idioms: this is one of my favourites. Translated literally this means between dog and wolf. It refers to dusk, when it might be hard to distinguish between a dog and a wolf.  This seems to me a delightfully poetic way to describe the last few hours of light at the end of the day.

Den letzten beißen die Hunde

Whereas in English we might say the Devil take the hindmost – indicating that those who lag behind will receive no help –  the German equivalent is the last one is bitten by the dogs. If you are last, you become vulnerable, in danger of being bitten by dogs (metaphorically speaking, of course). This conjures up images of a pack of swift, sharp-toothed dogs mercilessly pursuing the slowest creature of the hunted group. This idiom seems to warn those prone to being late that they won’t be able to get away with it for long.

Essere trattato come un cane in chiesa

If you used this Italian phrase you would be indicating that you had not been made to feel very welcome. It translates as to be treated like a dog in church. It is likely that this phrase comes from a time when dogs were dirtier and carried more fleas; hence how welcome (or, rather, unwelcome) they would be in a sacred place. Somehow, I don’t believe a dog would be at ease during Mass anyway.

Of all the animal related idioms out there, many of the ones with negative connotations relate to dogs, despite there being sixty million pet dogs in Europe. We seem to have clung to these vivid phrases from a time before dogs were known chiefly as man’s (and woman’s) best friend. Although idioms are never literal, of course, from these we can conclude that you shouldn’t dawdle, you cannot expect people to change, and it is never a good idea to bring your dog to church.

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