phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Trying to find a definition

Posted by Bruce Kahl on November 06, 2000

In Reply to: Trying to find a definition posted by James Briggs on November 05, 2000

: : Hello!
: : Chesterton's 'The Oracle of the Dog' begins this way:
: : "Yes," said Father brown, "I always like a dog, so long as he isn't spelt backwards."
: : Is 'to be spelt backwards' and idiom?

By definition, I would say that your phrase is an idiom.

As per Webster, one of the definitions of an idiom is that an idiom is an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either grammatically (as "no, it wasn't me") or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (as Monday week for "the Monday a week after next Monday").

The story you mention does indeed start with your phrase:

"YES," said Father Brown, "I always like a dog, so long as he isn't spelt backwards."

But the phrase has absolutely no meaning until the very last paragraph where the author is stating that a person who does not believe in God will believe in anything:

"The dog could almost have told you the story, if he could talk," said the priest. "All I complain of is that because he couldn't talk, you made up his story for him, and made him talk with the tongues of men and angels. It's part of something I've noticed more and more in the modern world, appearing in all sorts of newspaper rumors and conversational catch-words; something that's arbitrary without being authoritative. People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that, or the other. It's drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it's coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition." He stood up abruptly, his face heavy with a sort of frown, and went on talking almost as if he were alone. "It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can't see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there's a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a vista in a nightmare. And a dog is an omen and a cat is a mystery and a pig is a mascot and a beetle is a scarab, calling up all the menagerie of polytheism from Egypt and old India; Dog Anubis and great green-eyed Pasht and all the holy howling Bulls of Bashan; reeling back to the bestial gods of the beginning, escaping into elephants and snakes and crocodiles; and all because you are frightened of four words: `He was made Man.'"