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The meaning and origin of the expression: Man's best friend

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Man's best friend

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Meaning

An animal that performs valuable service to humans, often with reference to dogs.

Origin

A dog is a man's best friendA dog is a man's best friend? Well, if the animal's popularity is anything to go by, perhaps that's true; according to the American Kennel Club, there are more pet dogs in the USA than there are people in Britain. However, the affection in which dogs are held by many these days is a fairly recent development. How we used to think about dogs can be judged by looking at how they have been portrayed in language over the centuries.

The first linguistic oddity to do with dogs concerns where the word 'dog' came from. The name was preceded by the perfectly good Anglo-Saxon word 'hound', which was also used in other European languages. 'Dog', in common with several other animal names ending in 'g', like frog, hog, pig and stag, seems to have been coined around the 13th century for reasons that no one is at all sure about.

Prior to the 18th century, dogs were kept for hunting and defence and not as pets. The only deviation from that rule was that of the derided 'lap-dog', which John Evelyn recorded in his Diary, circa 1684, as a dog fit only for ladies:

Those Lap-dogs had so in delicijs [delight] by the Ladies - are a pigmie sort of Spaniels.

Lap-dogs apart, the phrases used to refer to dogs in the 16th and 17th centuries indicate their image as being vicious and disease-ridden:

Hair of the dog that bit you, first used in 1546 as a reference to rabies
Cast someone to the dogs, 1556
Dog in the manger , 1564
If you lie down with dogs, you will get up with fleas, 1573
The dogs of war, 1601
Go to the dogs, 1619

Also, phrases that indicate the treatment of dogs show that they were considered to be of little worth:

Lead a dog's life (1528)
Not fit for a dog (1625)
As sick as a dog (1705)

The unfortunate mutts were considered so beyond the pale that dog hangings, as punishment for chasing sheep or whatever else dogs did naturally, were commonplace. The phrase 'give a dog a bad name', 1705, was originally 'give a dog a bad name and hang him'.

The language relating to canines took a turn for the better later in the 18th century. The first example in print of the term 'dog-basket' dates from 1768. The need for a name for a piece of furniture provided specifically for the comfort of dogs shows a clear turning point in attitudes towards them. This shift in outlook continued steadily and in 1823 we first find 'dog biscuits', followed in 1852 by 'dog show'. By the mid 20th century we find clear linguistic evidence that a dog was to be considered almost on a par with humanity - 'dog-sitter' (1942).

The greatest claim to fame of Warrensburg, Missouri is that it is where the phrase 'a dog is a man's best friend' originated. In 1870, a farmer shot a neighbour's dog and, in the subsequent court case where the owner sued for damages, the lawyer George Graham Vest gave a tear-jerking speech that became known as the Eulogy to a Dog:

"Gentlemen of the jury, a man's dog stands by him in prosperity and poverty, in health and sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow, and the snow drives fiercely, if only he can be near his master's side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer; he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens." - And so on...

Man's best friendA statue of Old Drum, as the deceased beast was called, stands outside the town's courtroom. Sadly for the Warrensburg Tourist Board Senator Vest didn't originate the phrase, but he may have read it in a US newspaper, as it appeared in print fifty years earlier in The New-York Literary Journal, Volume 4, 1821:

The faithful dog - why should I strive
To speak his merits, while they live
In every breast, and man's best friend
Does often at his heels attend.

To paraphrase Harold Macmillan - 'Fido, you've never had it so good'.