Q From Matthew Cutter: I recently came across this expression as the answer to a crossword puzzle, and then only by solving all the words running through it. While a quick web search tells me that it’s a British idiom — meaning to hide quietly or lie low — I couldn’t find any history on it. Can you turn up any further insight?
A Though we assume that it’s British in origin, Australians and New Zealanders know it, too, and it has turned up from time to time in the USA, though I don’t think it’s at all well-known there. Some of my reference works suggest it’s old-fashioned — it may well be, though it’s familiar to me from my childhood and is still part of my active vocabulary.
The usual supposition is that it’s dog with an -o stuck on the end. It’s often said that it refers to a dog pretending to be asleep, but I’m not so sure. The reference is surely just as likely to be to a dog that’s lying still but alert, as dogs are able to do for long periods — my mental image is of a sheepdog in a field, ears pricked, quietly watching his charges.
The transfer to humans added the idea of seeking to avoid detection:
The house won’t be safe once the ammunition has given out — and I know the country all round there like the palm of my hand. There are plenty of places we can lie doggo in until help comes.
Wild Honey, by Cynthia Stockley, 1914.
Some examples in the early days were spelled doggoh, as in one quoted by Dr James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, in a puzzled enquiry to the scholarly journal Notes and Queries:
“DOGGO.” — What is it to lie doggo; and what is the history of doggo? Is it a mock Latin ablative of manner? ... An earlier instance differently spelt I have from Society of 7 October, 1882, p. 23, col. 1: “To-day’s meet of the London Athletic Club will be remarkable for the resurrection of E. L. Lockton after lying ‘doggoh’ some time.”
Notes and Queries, 4 Apr. 1896.
No response came to his enquiry and the term didn’t appear in the first edition of the OED, most probably because it wasn’t then very widely known. Dr Murray’s finding seems to have been mislaid and the citation wasn’t included in the entry for the idiom that appeared in the Supplement in 1933; it’s not in the current online edition either, though it’s two years older than the first example in the entry. (I’ve told the OED’s editors about it and it will be added when the entry is next updated.)
The term was given a small boost in the 1890s through its use by Rudyard Kipling in Soldiers Three and other writings. It became more common during the First World War and in post-war writings about the war, such as in the children’s books of Percy Westerman. It has also had peaks of usage during and immediately after the Second World War and again in the 1980s. The reason for its popularity in the armed forces during periods of conflict is too obvious to need elaboration.
This -o ending is curious. It’s much more characteristic of Australian word formation (arvo, servo, ambo and the like) than British. However, doggo’s first appearance in print in that country is dated 1895 (“ ‘Lie doggo,’ as the sailors say”) so transmission seems certain to be from Britain to Australia rather than the other way round.
Altogether, an odd little term.