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Dogging It?

(Monday, July 14, 2014)

by Bud Boccone

I had occasion recently to consider dog. Not the species, but the word itself—d-o-g.

Here’s an athlete who'll never dog it.

It was last Saturday, at my brother’s house on Long Island. We sat around the back deck with some old buddies, talking sports. Refreshments were served. One of the guys had the ballgame on his tablet. We watched the Mets devise yet another ingenious way to lose. More refreshments were served.

The conversation became animated. We argued about the lackluster play of the Mets’ shortstop. One of my well-refreshed companions settled the issue loudly: “He’s a dog! He’s been dogging it for two years!”

It struck me: Why when we admonish laziness do we slander the hardworking canine race?

Think of it. When was the last time you saw a self-respecting dog—even when pursuing such dubious ventures as chasing his own tail or trying to eat a brick—who didn’t give 100 percent to the task at hand?

The verb phrase “to dog it,” meaning “to avoid or evade work; refuse to exert oneself,” entered American English at the turn of the 20th century—just as pro sports was becoming a national mania. “Dog it” was coined on the playing field and then, saysThe American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, “was transferred to other endeavors.”

It’s unknown why dog should have come to describe the lazy and halfhearted. (A colorful, if questionable, theory cited in Paul Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary suggests, “the term is a literal and graphic reference to the infielder who ‘lifts his leg’ to get out of the way of a hard-hit ground ball.”)

But at the same time that dog became a synonym for shirk, the expression work like a dog (“work very hard”), dating from the late 1800s, was also gaining a toehold in American slang. And there’s a much older usage of dog as a verb, going back to medieval England: to pursue with great persistence, as in “Stephanie dogged me to get my column in on time.”

So, a simple three-letter verb has two opposing meanings: to avoid maximum effort and to exert maximum effort. Why?

Perhaps it’s because some words are so integral, so universally familiar, that they become handy symbols for a great many things. My dictionary’s entry for water, for instance, takes up eight inches of type; the entry for fire is even longer. Definitions of love and phrases containing love run two full columns—so do the definitions of dog and its related compounds.

Like fire, water, and love, the dog is so essential to human experience that the very word has taken on a vast array of meanings. It’s become all things to all people, a way of describing both positives and negatives. In an odd, roundabout way, accusing the Mets’ shortstop of dogging it isn’t a slander of dogkind but a compliment—it points up the central place dogs occupy in our shared consciousness. Still, the next time you see a ballplayer loafing, it would be more accurate to say he was humaning it.

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