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It’s a dog’s life

Q From Stephen P Goldman: Can you shed light on the meaning and origin of it’s a dog’s life? Those of us over 50 seem to use to suggest the need to accept the existential fact that things are hard; but in the under-50 set, the idea is that dogs have it easy, and so it’s a dog’s life equates to ‘how cushy’!

A It certainly seems that the phrase has become more ambiguous than it once was, though I’ve not come across many examples myself of its use as a description of a pampered existence. Most of our expressions that include dog are old enough to be based in times when dogs were not cosseted, but were kept as watchdogs or hunting animals, not as pets. They often weren’t allowed in the house, but were kept in kennels, fed scraps, worked hard, and often died young. So going to the dogs, dog tired, to die like a dog, dog’s dinner, dogsbody, dog eat dog, and a dog’s life all refer to a state of affairs best avoided. Specifically, a dog’s life is first recorded in the sixteenth century and seems to have remained in the language with the sense of “a life of misery, or of miserable subserviency” ever since. I’d hate to lose it myself.

Page created 30 Jan. 1999

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Last modified: 30 January 1999.