Today full members of the family – just see how the Simone, Raoul, Martine have replaced the Médor, Kim and Pupuce, we almost forget that in the past, the dogs only had a utilitarian dimension, hung with a chain at the back of the yard and fed every other day with table scraps. This era, fortunately over, has nevertheless left an indelible mark in … the expressions of the French language!
We all have someone around us who was “sick as a dog” after catching the Covid. More current than ever, this expression dates from the 17th century. When a dog was sick or injured, it was left on its own, put aside, isolated (that’s a word that has echoed since the pandemic…) and got away with it or died in agony that little was cared about. .
But this is no exception: most expressions invoking the dog have a pejorative connotation. Let’s take a few examples. “A dog’s weather” refers to rainy weather not to be put… a dog outside (funny anecdote: the English are less discriminating, at home they say “it rains cats and dogs”); “a dog character” designates a rather detestable person; “a dog’s job” suggests to us a thankless and despicable activity. And what about the insult “it’s a dog” uttered by Jean Lasalle against a political columnist last April? For Julie Neveux, linguist at the Sorbonne and playwright, “Most of these expressions bear witness to a time when it was normal to mistreat dogs, animals symbolizing both the exterior, dirt, what can be humiliated or despise”.
But the hatred of the dog goes back a long way, and observers make it start with the great monotheistic religions, the first to associate the dog with an impure being, a devil. Are the attacks of the herds and the fear aroused by the packs of wild dogs sufficient to justify this amalgam? This is a hypothesis put forward by researchers. For Mark Alizart, philosopher and author of the book Chiens (Puf, 2018) “pagan antiquity knew how to make room for the dog”, it was sometimes a warrior, sometimes a guardian “but with monotheism, man became the dog of God, domini canis (Dominican), and as this is unconsciously unbearable to him, he must distance himself from the dog, therefore belittle him”.
Degraded, beaten, martyred, exploited… it has definitely not always been good to be a dog and we don’t want anyone to have a “dog’s life”. Denis Lafay is the author of a novel published by Editions El Viso last April entitled “female dog of life”. So why did he choose precisely this title for his novel? “It occurred to me when I was composing the plot. Not only does it give a clue, but this expression also perfectly reflected for me a part of the life of my main character, Nicolas, made up of torments, personal dramas and melancholy. On the other hand, I did not know the origin of this expression. Confidence for confidence, the author never imagined his romantic hero with “a head of a beaten dog”.
The underrated poodle
Sometimes it goes even further: it is a breed of dog that can be attacked in its flesh. When you follow someone like a poodle, it seems that you are devoid of any judgment and rather in the category of submissive and impressionable. And what about the American political debate during which Joe Biden criticized Donald Trump for being “Putin’s poodle”? But it is very bad to know the dogs. The poodle indeed comes second behind the Border collie in the ranking of the most intelligent dog breeds.
The French language is not the only one to imply more than pejorative connotations by using the lexicon of the dog. “Bitch” in English or “female dog” does not only refer to the female of the canine species, but to a sexual and immoral dimension that was attributed to the shamelessness of the copulating dog. Moreover, even the expression “to have dog” which today sounds like a compliment, has its origins in the 19th century to designate a rather marginal woman, with a disturbing appearance.
Finally today, the use of these expressions in our daily language represents a form of linguistic transgression; they are used without taking into account their original meaning at all. For Julie Neveux, “we always inherit, linguistically, old interactional patterns”.