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The meaning and origin of the expression: Mad dogs and Englishmen

Mad dogs and Englishmen

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Mad dogs and Englishmen'?

The expression 'mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun' refers to the perceived naivety of the English in their disregard for the power of the sun in hot climates.

The self-deprecating humour of the line derives from the fact that, in the 1930s when the song was written, few English had travelled abroad and those that did were entirely unprepared for the heat of the sun near the Equator - the sun in England rarely requiring protective measures.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Mad dogs and Englishmen'?

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Of course, any discussion of the expression 'mad dogs and Englishmen' needs to begin with Noel Coward.

Coward's use of the phrase as the title of his 1931 song brought it to the public's attention, although as we shall see, Coward didn't coin it himself.

The phrase 'Mad dogs and Englishmen' - meaning and origin.
This statue of Noel Coward, at the site of his old home and
burial place in Jamaica, shows him in typical pose and,
appropriately, in full sun and without a hat ("which the Britishers
won't wear").

The song is a masterpiece of comic rhyming and, in my humble opinion, Coward's finest work. All the more impressive in that Coward's biographer Sheridan Morley says that Coward wrote the song in his head on a car journey in Vietnam "without pen, paper, or piano".

In tropical climes there are certain times of day
When all the citizens retire
To tear their clothes off and perspire.
It's one of those rules that the greatest fools obey,
Because the sun is much too sultry
And one must avoid its ultry-violet ray.
The native grieve when the white men leave their huts,
Because they're obviously definitely nuts!
Mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun,
The Japanese don't care to.
The Chinese wouldn't dare to,
Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve to one.
But Englishmen detest a siesta.
In the Philippines
There are lovely screens
To protect you from the glare.
In the Malay States
There are hats like plates
Which the Britishers won't wear.
At twelve noon
The natives swoon
And no further work is done.
But mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
It's such a surprise for the Eastern eyes to see
That though the English are effete,
They're quite impervious to heat,
When the white man rides every native hides in glee,
Because the simple creatures hope he
Will impale his sola topi on a tree.
It seems such a shame
When the English claim
The earth
That they give rise to such hilarity and mirth.
Mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
The toughest Burmese bandit
Can never understand it.
In Rangoon the heat of noon
Is just what the natives shun.
They put their Scotch or Rye down
And lie down.
In a jungle town
Where the sun beats down
To the rage of man and beast
The English garb
Of the English sahib
Merely gets a bit more creased.
In Bangkok
At twelve o'clock
They foam at the mouth and run,
But mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
Mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
The smallest Malay rabbit
Deplores this foolish habit.
In Hong Kong
They strike a gong
And fire off a noonday gun
To reprimand each inmate
Who's in late.
In the mangrove swamps
Where the python romps
There is peace from twelve till two.
Even caribous
Lie around and snooze;
For there's nothing else to do.
In Bengal
To move at all
Is seldom, if ever done.
But mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday
Out in the midday
Out in the midday
Out in the midday
Out in the midday
Out in the midday
Out in the midday sun.

The phrase 'Mad dogs and Englishmen' - meaning and origin.The idea that only the English were crazy enough to go out at noon in hot countries begin in the days of the Grand Tours of the 18th century. Protection from the heat is rarely an issue in England. The appearance of the sun isn't considered a reason to move indoors and sleep but to strip off and sunbathe. Even today, some lobster coloured British sunbathers on the Costa Del Sol see it as a point of honour not to concede that the sun might be too much for them.

One Grand Tour traveller was the Georgian author Charles Burney. In 1770 he write the travelogue Music, Men and Manners in France and Italy, which contains this line:

He certainly over-heated himself at Venice by walking at a season when it is said that only Dogs and Englishmen are seen out of doors at noon, all else lie down in the middle of the day.

It's clear that the idea encapsulated in Coward's song derives from earlier texts, and Burney is probably the original source. Coward may not have taken the idea directly from Burney, there are several other examples of the notion in print which date from the 19th century. For example, this piece from The Adventures of a Griffin on a Voyage of Discovery, Harden S. Melville, 1867:

They were bound to keep under cover during the midday hours, for it was said that none but mad dogs and Englishmen walked abroad then.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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