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See a man about a dog

Q From Rich, Johannesburg, South Africa: The saying I’ve got to see a man about a dog seems to be getting good use in films these days. Any idea of its origin?

A This has been a useful (and usefully vague) excuse for absenting oneself from company for about 150 years, though the real reason for slipping away has not always been the same.

Like a lot of such colloquial sayings, it is very badly recorded. However, an example turned up in 1940 in a book called America’s Lost Plays, which proved that it was already in use in the US in 1866, in a work by a prolific Irish-born playwright of the period named Dion Boucicault, The Flying Scud or a Four-legged Fortune. This play, about an eccentric and superannuated old jockey, may have been, as a snooty reviewer of the period remarked, “a drama which in motive and story has nothing to commend it”, but it does include our first known appearance of the phrase: “Excuse me Mr. Quail, I can’t stop; I’ve got to see a man about a dog”.

I don’t have access to the text of the play itself, so can’t say why the speaker had to absent himself. From other references at the time there were three possibilities: 1) he needed to visit the loo (read WC, toilet, or bathroom if you prefer); 2) he was in urgent need of a restorative drink, presumed alcoholic; or 3) he had a similarly urgent need to visit his mistress.

Of these reasons — which, you may feel, encompass a significant part of what it meant to be male in nineteenth-century America — the second became the most common sense during the Prohibition period. Now that society’s conventions have shifted to the point where none of these reasons need cause much remark, the utility of the phrase is greatly diminished and it is most often used in a facetious sense, if at all.

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Page created 27 Apr 2002