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Double-dog dare you

Q From David Luther Woodward; a related question came from Jim Powers: While in North Georgia last Christmas I saw — on the side of a delivery truck — an advertisement that included the phrase: ‘I double-dog dare you!’ I have not seen this since I was a child, when we used this as a counter-dare to up the ante when something dared appeared to be particularly daunting. Have you heard this, and do you have any opinions from whence it came?

A A. Like so much slang, the phrase isn’t that well recorded and so it’s hard to pin down its origins. It’s certainly an American expression, though, and one that’s still quite common.

Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang mentions it and dates it carefully as being current at least as far back as the 1940s. Many subscribers to this newsletter have long memories, so I’ve no doubt that they could take it back further without much effort. Jonathon Green, in the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, says it’s nineteenth century. He’s certainly right, since it’s listed in a book of 1896, The Child and Childhood in Folk-Thought by Alexander F Chamberlain.

Mr Chamberlain also mentions several other forms. As well as the immemorial I dare you, he gives I dog dare you, I double dog dare you, I black dog dare you, and the ultimate challenge that must surely have been impossible to pass up without appearing totally chicken, I double black dog dare you.

A couple are based on yet another form, one that he interestingly doesn’t give, but which has long been common almost everywhere: I double dare you, an obvious escalation of taunt that must have independently occurred to generations of young people, but which only appears in printed works from the end of the nineteenth century on. The oldest example I can find is from a story of young love (much more chaste than its title of Cordelia’s Night of Romance appears to us moderns), which appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in April 1895: “Maybe one day I’ll give you a dare. I’ll double dare you, maybe, to call me Clarice.”

Where the dogs come in I’m not at all sure, except that dog is a good strong word, with lots of potentially disparaging undertones, whose alliteration must have made it especially attractive. The reference to black dog has caused one writer to suggest a link with a bad shilling, so named in Britain in the slang of Queen Anne’s reign nearly three centuries before, but that’s stretching any transatlantic link well beyond breaking point. It is just possible that it’s somehow linked to the use of black dog to refer to an incarnation of the Devil, but — unless there’s something I’m missing — I suspect that black dogs were just that much more scary than any old sort of dog.

After the piece first went out, many American subscribers mentioned the film, A Christmas Story, which was based on the reminiscences of Jean Shepherd about his childhood in the 1930s. Henry Willis summarised the incident in which the expression appears: “At one point in the film one of his friends dares another friend, named Flick, to stick his tongue on the flagpole in front of the school on a snowy winter day. The kid who has been dared shows normal innate common sense until his friend ups the ante by double-daring then double-dog-daring him. At which point the movie’s narrator comments: ‘Now it was serious. A double-dog-dare. What else was there but a “triple dare ya”? And then, the coup de grace of all dares, the sinister triple-dog-dare’. At that point, of course, Flick has no choice but to accept the challenge with the predictably disastrous results”.

Page created 1 Nov. 2003

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Last modified: 1 November 2003.