When I was growing up in southern Indiana in the 1950s, we had a phrase “until the last dog is dead”, which meant “until it’s all over or until everyone has gone home”. If I thought of the origin at all, I probably supposed that it referred to dog-fighting.
My friend grew up in central Wisconsin in the 1950s and her family said “until the last dog is hung”.
My questions: What’s the origin? How old is it? Where is it regionally distributed?
I don’t have anything definite, but I’ve got another possibility for you.
Organizations I belong to put on volunteer-run conventions (typically Friday night through Sunday night). At the end of these conventions there is usually a “Dead Dog Party” after most of the clean-up has been done. The party is primarily for the volunteers, but anyone who has stayed is usually welcome too. One of the functions of the party is to try to dispose of all the remaining food and drink that had been available to people at the convention (rather than hauling it home or throwing it away).
Empty bottles that once held alcoholic beverages are sometimes referred to as “Dead Soldiers”. I see the possibility of a parallel using “Dead Dogs” instead (“Dead Soldiers wouldn’t be particularly appropriate since alcohol wasn’t served at these events – just soft drinks). You party until all the dogs are dead (i.e. until there’s nothing left to drink), then you go home.
As I said, it’s just a possibility. Since the volunteers generally “worked like dogs” and got very little sleep, it might instead be referring to “party until all the dog-tired people just collapse”. That in turn might bring up images of when a dog “plays dead” – stretched out unmoving on the floor, but not literally dead (much like the volunteers at the end of the weekend).
The “Until the last dog is hung” variation, however, does suggest a different angle. “Dog” may simply refer to a disreputable person. Back in the old days they didn’t have mass entertainment like radio, TV and such. If a person was sentenced to be hung people would often gather in large crowds to watch. Quite often the authorities would do several hangings all at once. There might be street vendors, speeches given and a general party atmosphere to the proceedings. People would naturally stay until “The last dog was hung” and then head home.
I have nothing specific to tie those phrases directly to these meanings. They are just suggestions of possible alternatives to the “dog-fighting” possibility you mention.
From The Phrase Finder:
UNTIL THE LAST DOG IS HUNG – “The earliest appearance of this phrase in print that we have been able to locate is in a novel by Stewart Edward White. Called ‘The Blazed Trail,’ it was published in 1902 and contains this line: ‘They were loyal. It was a point of honor with them to stay ‘until the last dog was hung.’ White spent much of his early life on the frontier, first in the West, later in the Hudson Bay country. We would hazard the guess that the original ‘dogs’ hung were of the human species and that the reference is to the kind of vigilante lynchings known as ‘necktie parties’ in the early West. Nowadays, of course, the expression is most often heard in reference to the inevitable two or three people at every cocktail party who hang around everlastingly — ‘until the last dog is hung’ and the host shows them the door.” From the “Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins” by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988).
Other answers on the same site sound much more folk-etymological:
- the Seneca New Year’s celebration in the winter, where on the fifth day they used to strangle a white dog and hang it on a pole
– From “Dance for the Dead,” a Jane Whitefield novel by Thomas Perry (Random House, New York, 1996)
- At the conclusion of the War of the Roses, Henry VII pitted a pack of dogs against a lion to demonstrate what would happen to traitors in his kingdom. The lion lost–which is not what Henry expected. To make his muddled point clear, Henry had every dog hung–and made his nobles watch till the last of them was dispatched. The story is related in The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George.
- Reply to the above: As I am writing a book about the language of that period, I would love this to be true. George’s book is fiction, of course, unless Henry wrote his autobiography by sending spirit messages. That doesn’t mean the story is untrue, but without evidence it doesn’t mean anything much at all.
And others that I won’t bother chasing and pasting.
Mark A. Mandel
aka Dr. Whom: Consulting Linguist, Grammarian, OrthoÃ«pist, and Philological Busybody
I had always assumed that it was a non-canine dog. In earlier ties, the didn’t have individual power sources for tools in a factory. Instead, they had a central dynamo which ran a shaft along the ceiling. In order to engage a tool, you’d pull a lever which shifted a canvas belt from an idler to a drive wheel.
Those drive wheels were attached to the drive shaft by means of a dog. Early v-belt pulleys were attached to the shaft with a dog. (These days, they usually have a set-screw.) A power lawn mower uses a dog of very soft metal which easily shears when the blade hits a root or a rock, the dog being sacrificed in order to keep the engine from self-destructing. I once bought a home i very poor condition, and until I got the yard in shape, I was buying the dogs by the dozen. The guy at the parts counter would see me coming and tell me that I was allowed to relax for the rest of the afternoon, since the last dog had died…. Obviously, he had a different origin of the phrase in mind.
Perhaps the new Tom Hanks movie has piracy on my mind, but lower classes of sailors are known as sea dogs. They could be hung, a well as dying in other ways.
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