I contemplate the event I’m about to attend. It’s one I helped plan, and by rights, I need to stay after it concludes and make sure things are orderly and well-wrapped-up.
“No,” I tell Jim, and I am rueful. “I think I will be there until the last dog dies.”
There’s a startled silence. Then, “What?” says Jim. “Eeeuw! What does THAT mean?”
“Well, you know,” I say, taken aback. Can it be I’ve never used that expression before? It’s one I grew up with, and, like so many turns of phrase we regularly use, never questioned. “It means…well. It means I’ll be there until the very end.”
“Ooooo-kay,” says Jim, and he gives me an odd look and leaves the room. And he leaves me thinking: where DOES that odd phrase come from?
I type, “…till the last dog dies…” into a search engine. And my goodness, what I learn.
I learn that President Bill Clinton used the phrase in a speech in Dover, New Hampshire, in the early 1990’s. If the citizens would give him a second chance, Clinton promised, he would hang in there until the last dog dies. There are several references to the phrase in reports of this speech–maybe it’s taken to be a quaint Arkansas-ism, although I heard it from my mother whose speech was influenced by her Scottish family and her Buffalo, New York, companions. How is it that Clinton and my mama share this unique phrase?
I type ‘etymology’ after ‘the last dog dies’ and hit search.
Again, I hit a treasure-lode of theories. It seems the phrase evolved from another, more specific one: until the last dog is hung. Stuart Edward White used the term in his 1902 novel, according to http://www.phrases.org. White wrote, “It was a point of honor among them to stay until the last dog was hung.”
This theory posits that ‘dog’ referred to an unsavory human–specifically, to a desperado in the Wild West. There is talk of ‘noose parties’ at which dozens of undesirable ‘dogs’ are dispatched at once–this particularly macabre party was over, then, ‘when the last dog was hung.’
That Wild West interpretation could explain how the phrase trickled into an Arkansas vocabulary, but not so much into a western New Yorker’s. I read on.
Another theory has it that the phrase is based on Seneca Indian lore. The Senecas, it is suggested, celebrated a five-day New Year’s festival, culminating in the strangling of a white dog, which was then hung from a pole. The holiday lasted, the revelers stayed on, until the white dog was hung, I guess, according to this interpretation.
Eeeeuw, indeed. Hung varmints, hung dogs. It is isn’t getting any nicer. But, grimly, I read on.
Mark A. Mandel–also known as ‘Dr. Whom,’ so I am guessing he must be of meticulous grammar intent–writes about a reference to the phrase in Margaret George’s fictional The Autobiography of Henry VIII. (This is not a George book I have read, although I enjoyed her Mary Queen of Scots book very much.) George writes a scene, Mandel says, in which Henry is vividly bringing a point about loyalty home to his nobles, who have been caught plotting intrigue against their king. The monarch pits a pack of feral dogs against a regal lion. Woe, Henry thinks, to the dogs.
But, ooops. Henry didn’t plan for this: the dogs overpower and kill the lion.. Henry has to do something definitive fast, so he orders each of the dogs to be strung up and hung until dead, and he orders the nobles to stand there and watch until the very last dog breathes its very last breath.
Lovely stuff. I am feeling a little queasy.
This gets me to thinking, though, about phrases we say that contain the word ‘dead,’–like for instance, when we say a thing or person that looks just like another is a ‘dead ringer.’ There’s a grisly theory, my online research tells me, about this phrase, too.
Many people believe it comes from the custom, in the days before science could prove definitively that a person was really most sincerely dead, of tying a long string around the presumed corpse’s finger. The casket would be buried, but the string would wend up to the surface of the grave and be attached to a bell on a pole. Then, if the corpse should re-awaken, the twitching of the finger would pull the string and ring the bell and grave diggers would converge and hopefully, disinter the poor surprised buried person before the air ran out, six feet below.
A not-so-dead ringer, I guess in reality. But wait–says one site–what does that have to do with the meaning of the phrase? A wakened sleeper could be construed as a once-dead ringer, but how does that relate to two things that appear to be mirror images?
In fact, it does not, my research suggests. Instead, in late 1800’s horse-racing, there was a habit of substituting a horse that looked remarkably like the authentic racer. The subs were called ‘ringers’, and dead here meant precise or exact–a dead ringer, an exact substitute.
That makes more sense, I think. It also is much less the stuff of which nightmares are made. (This all puts me in mind of a horrendous Scottish folk tale my mother used to tell about a beautiful young wife who had what they called the ‘sleeping sickness,’ and was buried alive, accidentally, while her devoted sea captain husband was far, far away…but the hair on my arm is rising and a chill finger creeps up my back. Let’s leave that tale alone…)
(I look up, by the way, the definition of dead as precise, exact, or irrevocable, hoping to find that etymology, but my quick search just tells me English speakers have used ‘dead’ in that way for a long, long time.)
Unbidden an old, old memory comes to me, of a young and crazy time, of being sound asleep when a warm body slipped in next to mine in the wee morning hours and whispered hoarsely, “You might find a few dead soldiers in the kitchen when you get up.”
And on tumbling out of bed for work the next morning, I found not a few, but a battalion of empty beer bottles marching all over the table.
When did an empty bottle become a ‘dead soldier’?
Phrase Finder (phrases.org.uk) offers me an interesting post from Mike in 2001, saying that William the IV orginally coined the phrase ‘dead marines.’ He was at dinner with the Duke of Clarence, and the table was quite cluttered with irritatingly empty bottles. The King waved to have the surface cleared.
“Take away those marines,” he said, gesturing to the bottles.
A high-ranking marine officer was at dinner. He respectfully asked the King why he chose his branch of the service in talking about the bottles.
“I call them marines,” Mike reports the King said, “because they are good fellows who have done their duty and are ready to do it again.”
Clearly, In William the Fourth’s day, beer bottles were refillable.
Mike goes on to report that empty beer bottles have been called ‘dead soldiers’ in the US since WWI. (Dictionary.com supports this, tracing the usage back to 1915.) It must have been another grimly humorous acknowledgement of the loss of life and the need for comfort in a harrowing time. And it was an apt image, perhaps, Mike suggests, in that “the ‘spirits’ had left the bottle…”
I close up the Safari app, and I get up to clear away the dishes. I am humbled.
I am the snooty English teacher who has said to generations of students, from sixth graders to college seniors, “Don’t USE a word if you cannot DEFINE a word.”
I am the pain-in-the-neck mother who has preached for yay, these forty-some years, “If you don’t know what you’re saying, you shouldn’t be saying anything.”
And yet, “I’ll be staying till the last dog dies,” I say blithely and unthinkingly. I, who thought I was so conscious, so mindful of my speech. I who thought I was in control of my turns of phrase.
I rinse the plates and I slide them into their dishwasher slots and I think sadly that I have been dead wrong.