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Q From Larry Stephan: In browsing your biographic details on the World Wide Words Web site I notice that you served as dogsbody at one time in your career. What a great word! Whence came it?

A A dogsbody is a lowly person who gets all the dirty jobs, like emptying the ashtrays or putting new toner in the photocopier. Anything menial, disagreeable, or boring somehow makes it into the job description. Americans might prefer gofer or grunt instead.

The word is a product of that great melting-pot and fount of culture, the British Royal Navy. British sailors at the time of Nelson were just about the worst-fed people around, living as they did on a monotonous diet that included such culinary awfulnesses as boiled salt beef and ship’s biscuits (which after weeks at sea had to be rapped on the table to persuade the weevils to leave before you could eat them). One of their staple foodstuffs was dried peas boiled in a bag. The official name for this concoction was pease pudding, but jolly Jack Tars knew it for what it was, and called it dog’s body. Perhaps it came from the shape of the bag after it had been boiled.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the same term began to be applied to lowly midshipmen, who got unloaded on to them all the nasty jobs that more senior officers wanted to dodge. Presumably the term was borrowed from the sailor’s foodstuff, though we can’t be absolutely sure about that, since there’s no evidence of a direct link.

Anyway, the word seems to have escaped the Navy in the early 1930s to become a more general term in the civilian world for the person in a group who got stuck with all the rough jobs. And so it has remained.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Jul. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 6 July 2002.