Today full members of the family – just look how Simone, Raoul, Martine have replaced Médor, Kim and Pupce, we almost forget that in the past the dogs had only a utilitarian dimension, hung with a chain at the back yard and fed every other day with table leftovers. This era, thankfully over, has nevertheless left an indelible mark on … the expression of the French language!
We all have someone around us who was “sick as a dog” after catching Covid. More current than ever before, this term dates back to the 17th century. When a dog was sick or injured, it was left on its own, set aside, isolated (it is a word that has resonated since the pandemic …) and got away with it or died in agony as one was do not care. .
But this is no exception: Most expressions that invoke the dog have a derogatory connotation. Let’s take a few examples. “A dog’s weather” refers to rain that must not be put … a dog outside (funny anecdote: the English are less discriminatory, at home they say “it rains cats and dogs”); “a dog character” means a rather abominable person; “a dog’s job” suggests to us an ungrateful and abominable activity. And what about the insult “it’s a dog” that Jean Lasalle uttered against a political columnist in April last year? For Julie Neveux, linguist at the Sorbonne and playwright: “Most of these expressions testify to a time when it was normal to mistreat dogs, animals that symbolize both the exterior, dirt, what can be humiliated or despised.”
But the hatred for the dog goes way back, and observers get it to start with the major monotheistic religions, the first to associate the dog with an unclean creature, a devil. Are the attacks of the herds and the fear aroused by the herds 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 (Dominicans), and since this is unconsciously unbearable for him, he must distance himself from the dog, therefore degrade him ”.
Degraded, beaten, martyred, exploited … it has certainly not always been good to be a dog, and we do not want anyone to have a “dog life”. Denis Lafay is the author of a novel published by Editions El Viso in April last year entitled “The Female Dog of Life”. So why did he choose this particular title for his novel? ‘It dawned on me when I composed the plot. Not only does it give a clue, but this expression also perfectly reflected for me a part of my main character, Nicolas, life that consists of torment, personal dramas and melancholy. On the other hand, I did not know the origin of this term. Confidence in self-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 dog breed 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 in which Joe Biden criticized Donald Trump for being “Putin’s poodle”? But it is very bad to know the dogs. The poodle actually comes in second place after the Border Collie in the rankings of the most intelligent dog breeds.
The French language is not the only one that suggests more than derogatory connotations of using the dog’s lexicon. “Bitch” in English or “female dog” refers not only to the female of the dog species, but to a sexual and immoral dimension attributed to the shamelessness of the mating dog. Moreover, even the term “having a dog”, which today sounds like a compliment, has its origins in the 19th century to denote a rather marginal woman, with a disturbing appearance.
Finally, today the use of these terms in our everyday 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”.