An Analysis of English Expressions Concerning Cats and Dogs

Proverbs, Idioms and Sayings Through the Ages

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018

18 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Expressions Recorded in the Middle English Period (1100-1450)
2.1. To bell the cat
2.2. Let sleeping dogs lie
2.3. A living dog is better than a dead lion

3 Expressions Recorded in the Early Modern English Period (1450-1750)
3.1. Love me, love my dog
3.2. Dog does not eat dog
3.3. A cat has nine lives
3.4. A cat may look at a king
3.5. Dog days
3.6. Dogs of war
3.7. It is raining cats and dogs
3.8. Like a cat on hot bricks
3.9. Give a dog a bad name and hang him

4. Expressions Recorded in the Modern English Period (1750-1950)
4.1. To let the cat out of the bag
4.2. The hair of the dog that bit you
4.3. To grin like a Cheshire cat

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

A question that can turn a dinner party into a discussion round, strangers into friends and a first date into a kiss: Cats or dogs? It is a question like summer or winter, tea or coffee - many people have a preference for one or the other. Often, they will heartily admit to being either a dog person or a cat person, and this answer is usually followed by anecdotes of their dog's latest mischief or recommendations for cute cat videos. While cats and dogs have not always been pets, they have been present in the lives of humans in one form or another for a very long time. Proof of this cannot only be found in documentaries and history books, but also in language: There is a myriad of proverbs, idioms and sayings involving one or both animals, many of which are still in use today.

In order to discuss a selection of expressions involving cats and dogs, it is necessary to define the terms 'proverb', 'idiom' and 'saying' as well as the time frame which will be covered in this essay. 'Saying' is the most general of the three terms as it refers to any “pithy or concise observation that expresses folk wisdom [...], a basic principle, fundamental teaching, or the like” (McArthur 1992: 888/889). A 'proverb' can be defined as a traditional saying, which presents a moral or an advice and usually appears in the form of a sentence (Speake 2015: xi/xii). In contrast, an 'idiom' is “a phrase that behaves like a word” (Ayto 2010: vii), which means that it is a fixed expression that has to be interpreted in its entirety. In contrast to a proverb, the meaning of an idiom “cannot be deduced by examining the meanings of the constituent lexemes” (Crystal 2003: 163).

The selection of expressions found in the following essay covers three periods in the development of the English language. These consist of the Middle English period (1100-1450) whose most famous author is Chaucer, the Early Modern English period (1450-1750) including the Renaissance and William Shakespeare, and the beginnings of Modern English (1750-1950).

The idioms and proverbs in this essay are ordered chronologically according to the date in which they were first documented in English. It is highly probable that many expressions were used orally before that date, but since the written record is the only definite proof of their usage, I employ it as a principal point of reference. The three major chapters of this essay are named after the mentioned periods of the English language and each will contain a short introduction to the specific period in order to provide background information. Each main chapter contains a variety of subchapters which are concerned with a different phrase respectively. For every expression, the individual historical context of its documentation, the origin and the meaning as well as the usage will be provided.

2. Expressions Recorded in the Middle English Period (1100-1450)

According to David Crystal, the Middle English period lasted from the beginning of the 12th century to the middle of the 15th century and involved many changes such as the “sudden emergence of French and Latin literacy” (2003: 30). The increasing influence of French early on in this period was the result of the Norman Conquest in 1066, which can be seen as the “beginning of a new social and linguistic era in Britain” (2003: 30). As a consequence of the French invasion, French became the language of the French and English upper classes, while English remained the language of the masses. This division, however, started to disappear towards the end of the 12th century, as many people became bilingual (Baugh and Cable 2002: 123). From the 13th century onwards, English was on the rise once again, when “[a] feeling of rivalry developed between the two countries [...] [which] culminat[ed] in the Hundred Years' War” (2002: 127). Through extensive borrowing of vocabulary, French nonetheless left a lasting impression on the English language. Simultaneously, “several thousand words came into the language directly from Latin” (Crystal 2003: 48), continuing the borrowing of Latin already eminent in the Old English period (2003: 24).

In writing, French and Latin dominated until the 14th century when English translations of those texts started to increase (2003: 34). This included a movement of translating the Bible which was initiated by John Wycliffe in the 1380s (Crystal 2004: 237). Original English works, such as those of Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400), emerged more frequently as the 15th century came closer, and it is in said century that English replaced Latin and French in the written form (Baugh and Cable 2002: 153). With the work of the London Chancery scribes, the movement towards a Standard English also began in this period (Crystal 2004: 3).

2.1. To bell the cat

This proverb was first recorded by the Lollard William Langland in the English text Piers Plowman, which was written between 1362 and 1387 (Baugh and Cable 2002: 156) and covers the social, religious as well as economic issues of the 14th century (Crystal 2004: 181). While there is little known about Langland's life, there is a consensus concerning the origin of this proverb among historical linguists. It alludes to an ancient fable in which a group of mice discuss how they can protect themselves from a cat. Their idea is to hang a bell around the cat's neck in order to hear her approach. Having formed this plan, one question remains to be answered: Who will bell the cat? (Ayto 2010: 25; Flavell and Flavell 1992: 22; Evans 1989: 100). The fable is generally known as Mice in Council and often attributed to Aesop. The Greek collector of fables lived from 620 to 560 B.C. and was supposedly a freed slave from Phrygia (Anguelova 2016).

In concordance with the fable, the meaning of to bell the cat is “to undertake a difficult mission at great personal risk” (Flavell and Flavell 1992: 22). Connected to this is also the notion that “[i]t is no use having bright ideas unless [you] are willing to put them into practice” (Anguelova 2016). The proverb was for example used by Walter Scott in 1890 (Flavell and Flavell 1992: 22), but a hundred years later, the proverb was already described as dated (1992: 22), which leads to the assumption that it is not used frequently in the present. Nonetheless, it could be used in any situation that involves at least two people and a dangerous or difficult task which has to be accomplished. One person would have to undertake the task and would thus bell the cat .

The most famous usage of the expression is connected to the Scottish nobleman Archibald Douglas, the fifth Earl of Angus, who lived during the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century (Evans 1989: 100). Noblemen at the court of King James III planned to get rid of the king's new favorites among which there was an architect called Cochran. The sources disagree on whether Douglas murdered several favorites of the king (1989: 100) or solely the mentioned architect (Flavell and Flavell 1992: 22), but they agree upon the fact that Douglas declared he would bell the cat before he acted, which is why his deeds “earned him the nickname 'Bell-the-Cat Douglas'” (1992: 22).

2.2. Let sleeping dogs lie

The present form of this proverb can be traced to Walter Scott's novel Redgauntlet from 1824 (Speake 2015: 288; Ayto 2010: 320). In this essay, the expression is nonetheless treated as a proverb from the Middle English period, because its very first appearance in English literature is in Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, in which Padus states: “It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake” (qtd. in Speake 2015: 288). Since McArthur calls this “the ancestor of 'Let sleeping dogs lie'” (1992: 819), it is reasonable to classify the version in Troilus and Criseyde as the English original and recognize the proverb's development from Chaucerian times to the present day.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400), known best for his Canterbury Tales, depicted colloquial speech with a variety and range no writer had used before him (Crystal 2003: 38). He thus contributed greatly to the rise of Middle English within the literary context, which was mentioned in the introductory paragraphs of this chapter. As Crystal states, “text[s] such as [ The Canterbury Tales or Troilus and Criseyde] not only reflected contemporary varieties of speech and writing, [but] also helped to shape them” (2004: 182/183).

There is not much information concerning the proverb's origin except the highly probable assumption that Chaucer was not its inventor and only recorded it. Since proverbs “in the Middle Ages [were] treated as accepted wisdom” (McArthur 1992: 819), they were often found in literature, for example as quotations in the speech of characters. Furthermore, Ayto notes that the French phrase n'esveillez pas lou chien qui dort, meaning 'do not wake the sleeping dog', already existed in the early 14th century (2010: 320).

While the proverb has taken on different forms throughout time, its meaning has remained the same up until the present: “Don't stir up trouble by seeking to make changes. If your course of action is likely to cause trouble, let things be.” (Evans 1989: 339) As Wood states, this expression is not used in the passive form (1965: 168). The proverb is still employed frequently today, for example in a situation where the whole group could suffer if one group member calls attention to an injustice. At the workplace, employee A complaining about employee B for taking too many coffee breaks may result in an increase of surveillance for all employees. In a case like this, people could tell employee A to let sleeping dogs lie in order to avoid a change leading to a disadvantage for all people involved.

2.3. A living dog is better than a dead lion

The sources containing this proverb mention its allusion to the Bible (Speake 2015: 188; Evans 1989: 338; Whiting 1968: 139; Tilley 1950: 166) and usually quote from “Ecclesiastes” 9:4. Often, it is unclear which English translation of the Bible is quoted, but Whiting and Speake both indicate the respective versions used. Whiting refers to the second version of the unauthorized Holy Bible... by John Wycliffe and his Followers from 1395 (1968: 139), whereas Speake uses the authorized King James Bible from 1611 as a reference (2015: 188). The quotations of different variations give insight into the development of the proverb from “Betere is a quik dogge than a deed lioun (qtd. in Whiting 1968: 139) in the earlier Bible translation to “for a living dog is better than a dead lion” (qtd. in Speake 2015: 188) in the later one. While the proverb certainly has its origin in the Bible, both Speake and Whiting provide other sources as the earliest instance of its English written record. In 1390, the books Proverbes of diverse profetes and Minor Poems of Vernon MS both provide a version of the expression, namely “Better is a quik and an hol hounde Then a ded lyon liggyng in grounde” (qtd. in Whiting 1968: 139) and “Better is a quick [living] and an hol hounde Then a ded lyon” (qtd. in Speake 2015: 188), respectively.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


An Analysis of English Expressions Concerning Cats and Dogs
Proverbs, Idioms and Sayings Through the Ages
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
MA Hauptseminar Linguistics
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
English Proverbs, English Idioms, English Sayings, English Phrases, Cats, Dogs, Middle English, Early Modern English, Modern English
Quote paper
Silvia Schilling (Author), 2018, An Analysis of English Expressions Concerning Cats and Dogs, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: An Analysis of English Expressions Concerning Cats and Dogs

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free