Bookshelp header image for page World Wide Words logo

It’s a dog’s life

Q From Stephen P Goldman: Can you shed light on the meaning and origin of it’s a dog’s life? Those of us over 50 seem to use to suggest the need to accept the existential fact that things are hard; but in the under-50 set, the idea is that dogs have it easy, and so it’s a dog’s life equates to ‘how cushy’!

A It certainly seems that the phrase has become more ambiguous than it once was, though I’ve not come across many examples myself of its use as a description of a pampered existence. Most of our expressions that include dog are old enough to be based in times when dogs were not cosseted, but were kept as watchdogs or hunting animals, not as pets. They often weren’t allowed in the house, but were kept in kennels, fed scraps, worked hard, and often died young. So going to the dogs, dog tired, to die like a dog, dog’s dinner, dogsbody, dog eat dog, and a dog’s life all refer to a state of affairs best avoided. Specifically, a dog’s life is first recorded in the sixteenth century and seems to have remained in the language with the sense of “a life of misery, or of miserable subserviency” ever since. I’d hate to lose it myself.

Share this page
Facebook Twitter StumbleUpon Google+ LinkedIn Email

Search World Wide Words

Support World Wide Words!

Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.


Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!

OTHER WAYS TO HELP

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 30 Jan. 1999

Advice on copyright

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.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-its1.htm
Last modified: 30 January 1999.