7 Familiar Pet Expressions With Interesting Origins

Do you know where the phrase “dog-eat-dog world” came from?

Did you know that “dog days of summer” didn’t start out as a reference to high temperatures? By: tensafefrogs

I recently caught myself using the expression “dog days of summer.”

Realizing that I wasn’t entirely sure where the phrase came from, I did a little research. As it turns out, my understanding of the expression wasn’t exactly correct.

That got me thinking about all of the dog- and cat-related expressions we use today and what their origins might be. Here are 7 popular phrases that might not mean what you think they mean.

1. It’s Raining Cats and Dogs

This particular idiom is a bit of a debated topic. As you may recall, chain-letter emails were a big thing in the ’90s, but one in particular shed some light on a few of the more common sayings and traditions, including the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

This email chain suggested that pets hid in the thatched roofs of our forefathers and slipped out when there was a storm, appearing to fall from the sky. This theory was debunked, though, and replaced with a couple new ones:

  • The attendants of Odin — Norse god of storm — were dogs. Perhaps that bit of mythology had a hand in forming the saying.
  • Flooding caused by heavy rain in the city streets of 17th century England often washed away whatever got in its path, including dogs and cats, sadly. Although the animals weren’t falling from the sky, their presence in the flooding rainwater might have helped create the idiom.

2. Hair of the Dog That Bit You

If you’ve ever had a few too many drinks, you’ve probably had someone recommend a “hair of the dog” to avoid a hangover the following morning. In this context, you would have an alcoholic drink the morning after your liquor-laden night.

But the origin of the phrase? It actually dates back thousands of years.

The meaning is pretty straightforward: If a dog bit you, using that dog’s hair as a remedy would prevent rabies. But, um, don’t try that at home — it’s obviously a superstition from way back.

3. Cat Got Your Tongue?

Commonly used in the last half-century, this phrase refers to someone being unusually silent. Here are a couple unpleasant origin theories:

  • The idiom may have come from sailors scared into silence when threatened with a whip called a “cat o’ nine tails.”
  • The expression may have gained popularity from the cruelty of ancient rulers who cut out subjects’ tongues and fed them to cats (shudder).

However, it seems more likely that the phrase “may just be a nonsensical invention,” says Jonny Wilkes of History Extra, “like children’s nursery rhymes or fairy tales.”

Yeah, I’ll go with that one.

Hopefully, “Cat got your tongue?” is just a nonsensical expression without any gruesome origins. By: zaimoku_woodpile

4. Dog Days of Summer

We all know that the dog days of summer are the hottest, but do you know why we refer to them that way?

Personally, I figured it had to do with pooches’ lethargy seen during the long, hot days of summer. But “dog days of summer” refers to the weeks of July 3 to August 11, a period when Sirius, the “Dog Star” in the Canis Major (Greater Dog) constellation, is visible in the night sky.

So the “dog days of summer” is actually named after the celestial dog’s movement across the heavens. Neat, huh?

5. Dog-Eat-Dog World

Today, this expression describes a society where people use ruthless means to succeed, especially at the expense of their peers. But where did the phrase come from?

In 43 BC, a Roman scholar compared humanity to dogs, saying that “a dog will not eat a dog,” but humans didn’t even possess the restraint of a dog to not attack their own species. And so the expression “dog-eat-dog world” came about.

6. Curiosity Killed the Cat

Cats and their overflowing curiosity tend to land them in countless predicaments — the most clichéd being stranded in a tree.

Though a cat’s daily curiosities should be perfectly harmless — like batting that new hair scrunchie you dropped on the floor — too much curiosity can lead a cat to harm or worse.  And so this expression came about as a thinly veiled threat used when someone is being a little too nosy.

This curious cat can’t imagine what this machine is for:

7. Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Used since the 1300s, this saying is sound advice for anyone tiptoeing past a slumbering watch dog. Startling a dog by waking it could lead to a bite.

Outside of its literal definition, this expression basically means: “Do not instigate trouble by disturbing a situation.”

These expressions are still commonly used today, so now that you’re fully aware of their meaning and origins, go ahead and add a little pet talk to your conversation.

Allison Gray

View posts by Allison Gray
Allison Gray gained a wealth of knowledge about animal welfare issues and responsible pet care during her nearly 5 years of work for an animal shelter. She is a writer, photographer, artist, runner and tattooed remedial knitter. Allison also has been researching, testing out and perfecting nutritious pet treat recipes in her kitchen for Petful since spring 2017.

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