From the hottest dog days of summer to the chilliest three-dog nights, our best friends accompany us through the years. But what do those doggy figures of speech actually mean? Here’s the lowdown on dog days, three-dog nights, hunting dog idioms, and a fine litter of other dog phrases.
What Does “Dog Days of Summer” Mean?
The “dog days” are supposedly the hottest days of summer, but the name has nothing to do with dogs who lie panting in cool dirt trenches. The “dog days” of summer are actually named after the “dog star,” Sirius—the brightest star in the sky besides the sun.
As the Earth makes it yearly trip around the sun, different stars are visible at different times. Ancient Romans noticed that during the hottest part of the year, bright Sirius and the sun rose together in the morning. Sirius means “glowing” or “scorcher” in ancient Greek, and the Romans thought the additive effect of scorching Sirius and the sun must cause the maddening heat of the summer. (Summer heat is caused by the sunlight coming in at a relatively direct angle for many hours. But Sirius wasn’t a bad guess.)
But Why Are They Called the DOG Days?
That explanation just kind of moves the question along, though. It still doesn’t tell us how dogs enter into the situation—why is Sirius called the “dog star” at all?
It’s because of the ancient association between hunters and their dogs. In Greek mythology, Sirius was the dog of the hunter Orion. And the constellations reflect that. The star Sirius is the main event in the constellation Canis Major (“Greater Dog”). For aeons, with every rotation of the Earth, Canis Major has faithfully followed the constellation Orion into the sky.
In fact, you can use the three stars in Orion’s belt to find Sirius. Imagine a straight line through the belt. Follow that line, and below it will be the brightest star in the night sky. There’s that loyal Sirius.
When Do the Dog Days of Summer Begin, and How Long Do They Last?
The traditional period of the “dog days” is July 3 to August 11. But the exact date of Sirius and the sun’s simultaneous rise depends on the latitude. In the continental United States, they rise together between July 26 (in southern Florida) and August 18 (in northern Maine). The constellations’ rise inches a bit further along the year with each equinox, so today Sirius and the sun rise together several weeks later than they did in ancient Greek and Roman times. In another 10,000 years or so, Sirius and the sun will rise together in the “dog days of winter.”
To see Sirius rise with the sun for yourself, find a spot where the Eastern horizon is pretty clear. You (and your dog, if she’s an early riser too) should plan to be outside about 45 minutes before sunrise. Sirius will rise about five fists to the right of the glow on the horizon where the sun will come up.
What Does “Three Dog Night” Mean?
This phrase describing frigid nighttime temperatures apparently originated with the Chukchi people in eastern Siberia. The Chukchi developed the Siberian Husky, a hardy, energetic breed well suited to the harsh conditions of the Siberian Arctic. Siberian Huskies are most famous as sled pullers, but on winter nights the Chukchi didn’t let their dogs’ cozy warmth go to waste. A cold Siberian night might require two dogs to keep a person warm. And an especially frigid night might take three: That’s a three-dog night.
Of course, the Chukchi are not the only people ever to have noticed that sleeping dogs are toasty warm. Legend has it that the band name “Three Dog Night” was proposed by a friend of the band who read a magazine article about Australian aboriginals and semi-domesticated dingoes who shared the same symbiotic cold-weather arrangement.
Now you know: Dog-snuggling is a time-honored practice that spans the globe. Whether in the Arctic north, in the Australian outback, on your dog’s bed, or in your own, it warms the soul as well as the body. …But maybe you knew that already.
Are There Hunting Dog Idioms in General Use?
Oh yes. Unfortunately, English-language hunting dog idioms aren’t about loyalty or coziness. They’re about doing it wrong.
“Barking up the wrong tree” originated in the 1830s with coonhounds, whose job it was to tree a raccoon and then bark to alert the hunter. Just as any of us might sometimes dedicate ourselves to a futile or wrongheaded lead, a coonhound might sometimes set to barking up a tree without the raccoon in it.
Some people were aggravated by the noisy and foolish mistake. In 1839, a writer in Chemung, NY described “…the same reckless indifference which causes a puppy to bark up the wrong tree.” But in 1866, author C.H. Smith wrote, “If my coon dog does sometimes bark up the wrong tree, he don’t mean any harm by it”—just an honest mistake. Today the phrase is used almost exclusively as a figure of speech in relation to people.
“That dog won’t hunt.” Sometimes “that old dog won’t hunt,” this phrase apparently originated in the Southern United States. A dog that won’t hunt can’t be forced, cajoled, or bribed to do it. If it won’t hunt, it just won’t hunt. “That dog won’t hunt” is said about something—an excuse or explanation or proposal—that is just not going to work.
What Does “Sicker Than a Dog” Mean? “Dog-Eat-Dog?” Etc.?
It’s ruff out there in the English language. Taken together, plenty of English dog idioms suggest that a dog’s life is, well, “a dog’s life” (an unhappy and unpleasant existence).
Consider this unfortunate pack of phrases:
- As sick as a dog/sicker than a dog – miserably sick
- Work like a dog – work extremely hard
- Dog-tired – exhausted as a dog after a long chase
- My dogs are barking – my feet are hurting, requiring attention
- Dog-eat-dog world – an environment of ruthless, cruel competition
- Underdog – predicted loser of a contest; person with little power
- Go to see a man about a dog – leave for a purpose you are concealing, for instance to use the restroom or drink alcohol
- Go to the dogs – deteriorate
- Throw to the dogs – fail to protect, cast out
Whew! Pretty shabby lexical treatment for humans’ best friend. But, take heart—it’s not all bad. Even “a dog’s life” today sometimes has the complete opposite meaning of the widespread original sense: “a dog’s life” can mean one of pampered relaxation.
Here are a few more dog idioms that aren’t actively negative:
- Every dog has its day – everyone has good fortune sometimes
- Cleaner than a hound’s tooth – spotlessly clean, either physically or morally. A regionalism from the Southern United States, used like “clean as a whistle.”
- Hair of the dog (that bit you) – alcohol as a hangover cure. Comes from a folk cure to prevent infection in a dog bite—perhaps on the principle of “like cures like,” perhaps on the principle of facing your fears
- His bark is worse than his bite – he sounds or seems harsh or aggressive, but he doesn’t follow through with harsh or aggressive action
- Top dog/leader of the pack – the “top dog” was the winner of a dog fight, and the original idiom referred to any winner of a hard-fought contest. Today the meaning sometimes overlaps with “leader of the pack”—someone at the head of a group.
- Let sleeping dogs lie – leave well enough alone; don’t stir things up and cause a new fuss
Hot diggity dog! As we travel through the years with our dogs, maybe our language will continue to create and strengthen idioms about dogs’ loyalty, work ethic, snugglability, and/or sense of fun.
I know I’d be like a dog with two tails (delighted, extra happy).