What I really need is a liger.*
Dear Word Detective: Any dog owner can well-understand such metaphors as “dogs” for feet (especially dog-tired feet), “dogging” somebody for pestering them, and even “dirty dog” (when I see my best friend rolling in the grass, I know it is bath time). But “dogs of war” for soldiers? I know it comes from Shakespeare, but did he make it up out of whole cloth? Was it a pure metaphor from having seen vicious dogs fighting? Or did they train attack dogs way back then? — Steve Ford.
So when they roll in the grass, that means they need a bath? Live and learn. I always figured they cleaned themselves, like cats do. Just kidding, of course, but I did discover a few years ago that dogs are much easier to bathe if you shave them first. Last summer I gave Pokie a lion cut, with a regal mane and just a tuft of fur left at the tip of her tail. People love lion dogs. There was one that used to live near us in Manhattan, on West 83rd Street, and guys sitting out on their stoops would shout, “Here comes the lion dog!” Then again, I think that dog’s owner was a drug dealer, so maybe they weren’t really excited about the lion dog, per se. But it was a cool dog.
I haven’t done a rigorous count, but I’d be surprised if there weren’t more phrases and idioms in English involving dogs than any other animal, although cats are obviously also very popular, followed by the ever-popular livestock idioms. But from “dog eat dog” to “a dog’s life” (not a happy one) to “dogleg” (a sharp bend in something) to “hair of the dog that bit you” (a hangover remedy containing alcohol) to “putting on the dog” (possibly from aristocrats who carried small dogs as fashion accessories) to “going to the dogs” (falling to ruin, but originally, according to Plutarch, simply meaning “in an uproar”), it’s apparent that man’s best friend is also man’s most convenient metaphor. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) mentions a nifty one I’d never heard, “to keep a dog and bark oneself,” meaning “to do the work for which one employs others” (“Investors can monitor their portfolios … but mainly let the chosen professionals do their job. After all, why keep a dog and bark yourself?” UPI, 2001). Words to live by, if you can afford them. I guess the rest of us will have to go bark ourselves.
The phrase “dogs of war” does indeed come from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, Act III, in Mark Antony’s soliloquy after Caesar’s assassination. Consumed by foreboding after the murder, Antony predicts chaos for Rome as Caesar’s legacy: “And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, With Ate by his side come hot from hell, Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice, Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.” (Ate, incidentally, was a Greek goddess who personified ruin and destruction.)
By “dogs of war” Shakespeare meant destruction, chaos and death on a mass scale, but he was aware, in concocting the metaphor, that dogs had been used in warfare since ancient times, including in Greece, Rome and even Egypt. As sentinels and guards outside encampments, scouts and trackers, and even as weapons of attack, dogs have been employed by armies just about as long as there have been armies, and many military forces (including those of the US) still use dogs for a variety of tasks.
In using the concrete “dogs of war” as a metaphor for the chaos of warfare, Shakespeare created a powerful and vivid phrase, which, not surprisingly, tends to pop up whenever essayists bemoan humanity’s predilection for self-destruction. But the publication in 1974 of Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Dogs of War gave a new currency and a slightly different meaning to the phrase. In Forsyth’s book, set in post-colonial Africa, the “dogs of war” are professional mercenaries, soldiers-for-hire hired by a British industrialist to overthrow the government of a country in order to gain access to its mineral wealth. The popularity of Forsyth’s book and its subsequent Hollywood film adaptation popularized the phrase “dogs of war” as a synonym for “mercenaries” or, a bit more loosely, “enthusiastic and amoral proponents of military action.” Oddly, neither definition has yet made it into the OED.
Incidentally, “to cry havoc” in Shakespeare’s time (and Caesar’s, too) was a specific military command ordering soldiers in battle to loot and seize spoils from the enemy. “Havoc,” from the Old French “havot” (looting), may have been derived from the Latin “habere,” to have.” Shakespeare’s use of the phrase as part of his metaphor probably contributed to the broadening of “havoc” (often combined with “play” or “wreak”) to its modern meaning of “confusion, disorder, or destruction” (“The noise and clatter of high-revving engines can play havoc with a driver’s nerves,” 1969).
* Napoleon Dynamite: It’s pretty much my favorite animal. It’s like a lion and a tiger mixed… bred for its skills in magic.