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“To lie doggo,” an idiom few people seem to know

Last week (November 6, 2019), in passing, I mentioned my idea of the origin of the word dog and did not mean to return to this subject, but John Cowan suggested that I consider an alternative etymology (dog as a color word). I have been aware of it for a long time, but why is my idea worse? It may even carry more conviction, because I offered a hypothesis that takes care not only of dog but also of bug and a few other similar-sounding animal names: (ear)wig, frog, and stag. Finally, why should hog be Scandinavian any more than Celtic or Common North European? The etymology of hog “castrated animal” from Icelandic höggva, related to German hauen and Engl. hew, reminds me of a fanciful derivation of the phrase to go the whole hog, allegedly from “the whole blow.” The Scandinavian words for “hog” bear no resemblance to the English one. Since I have nothing to add to my series of posts on dog (Spring 2016), for the time being, I will let the many beasts mentioned there sleep in peace. Anyway, all our etymologies are arrows shot into the air and may not hit even an earwig.

An earwig: hitting it with an arrow will be hard. European Earwig by Katja Schulz, CC by 2.0 via Flickr.
A broken reed. Don’t lean on it! Moorhen next by Stephen Craven, CC by-SA 2.0 via Geograph.

I forget where I came across the phrase to lie doggo, but, strangely, I have known it most of my life. Perhaps British speakers still understand it. In American English, it has no currency. Although idioms tend to be local, one should beware of broad generalizations. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot often finds himself in a brown study, that is, in a state of deep (and usually gloomy) meditation. This phrase falls on deaf ears whenever I use it, but it does occur in some late American novels, and, strangely, Huck Finn knew it. Likewise, my advice to students not to lean on a broken reed arouses nothing but wonder and suppressed merriment. Perhaps this biblical idiom is hopelessly obsolete, or perhaps it never had any currency in American English.

The same holds for the idiom to lie doggo. Michael Quinion (World Wide Words) found several old examples of lie doggoh (sic) antedating the earliest (1882) citation in the OED. The etymology of this odd phrase remains unknown, and here I can perhaps be of some help. In 2019, I published an article dealing with lie doggo. Regrettably, when I was writing it, I did not know James Murray’s 1896 one paragraph suggestion on doggo in Notes and Queries (I wonder how it escaped my fine-toothed comb!) or Michael Quinion’s essay on the Internet. Dictionaries of course cite the phrase in question and try to explain it by referring to the behavior of dogs. The origin of -o in doggo is usually taken for the familiar suffix, as in kiddo, typo, weirdo, and the rest (no one has discussed –oh, for no one has been aware of the form doggoh in this idiom).

A windlass. Is this a prototypical doggo? Image by Bestbudbrian, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

I owe my idea to chance. While reading some story or book in Icelandic, I came across the phrase sitja upp við dogg. It means “to sit or half-lie, supporting oneself with elbows.” Sitja upp corresponds to Engl. sit up. Við, a cognate of with (ð = th in Engl. this), means “against” (such is the oldest meaning of this preposition: compare not only German wider but also Engl. with in withhold and withdraw). However, dogg (the accusative of doggur), a word known in texts since the eighteenth century, has nothing to do with dogs. It means “a vertical cylindrical object.”

Engl. doggo has no independent existence outside a recent meme (which cannot interest us here) and the phrase under consideration. By contrast, in Icelandic, the verbs meaning “rise,” “lie,” and “hold oneself” alternate with “sit up” before við dogg. The origin of Icel. doggur is unknown, except that the root dogg– occurs in words meaning “to do something mechanically, without giving thought to the matter; persistent; weak, feeble, depressed.” The most probable Norwegian (dialectal) cognate of doggur means “boathook” (not a cylinder but also an implement). A broader look at the relevant words yields round objects, round sticks, a windlass, and possibly dolls. The vague unifying feature of all them seems to be roundness. Such is, in my opinion, also the most ancient semantic feature of Engl. dog, presumably a baby word for “toy,” “doll,” and “pet animal” (“pup”).

Another doggo? Image by karin smulders, CC0 via Pixabay.

Beginning with the fifteenth century, Engl. dog began to be used for mechanical devices having or consisting of a tooth or claw, used for griping or holding (so explained in the OED). Some such devices are also called cat. I would like to suggest that the Icelandic phrases with dogg (the accusative of doggur) refer to people’s various positions in front of some implements: they lie, sit up, rise, etc. before windlasses, poles, sticks, and cylinders. In any case, dogg– could not refer to an animal name, because in all the Scandinavian languages the word for “dog” is hund– (a cognate of Engl. hound; in English, this ancient noun was ousted by the newcomer dog).

The rest is murky. I suspect that phrases like the one we know from Icelandic also had some currency on the continent, perhaps including the Dutch-speaking area and northern Germany. One of them seems to have reached English, and to lie doggo, presumably borrowed from the language of itinerant artisans, acquired the meaning “to stay put.” The missing link has not been found (that is why it is called missing!). Nor do we know whether the Icelandic idiom is native (if my reconstruction has any value, it reached Iceland from the continent). I referred to the lingua franca of professional handymen in the post on ajar (August 22, 2012) and in the entry adz(e) in my 2008 book An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology. With regard to dog as the name of an implement, see the post “It rains cats and dogs” (March 21, 2007).

Finally, what is –o in doggo? James Murray wondered whether this vowel might not be added in imitation of the Latin ablative, to express the idea “to lie the way dogs do.” This is a clever guess, but here we may probably do without Latin. Several possibilities exist. Perhaps the phrase came to England from some Dutch, German, or Scandinavian dialect in approximately the form known to us, with dogga or doggu at the end, and was transformed into doggo. The spelling doggoh makes the suggestion of the humorous ablative unlikely. Not quite improbable is the suggestion that dogga or doggu lost its ending in English and turned into lie dog, after which the slangy suffix –o was added to the noun, to make it sound like other words with -o. The recorded English forms are so late that their history may be called lost. When to lie doggo had established itself, folk etymology associated doggo with the animal name, and people began to invent explanations of what dogs have to do with the idiom. Apparently, they barked at a wrong tree.

And now a last blow to the hapless porker. Charles E. Funk, the author of several books on English idioms, researched the origin of the American phrase (as independent) as a hog on ice and came to the conclusion close to the one given in The Century Dictionary. Hog, it appears, refers to an implement used in a game played on ice. This explanation looks reasonable, while all references to the animal make little or no sense. In an indirect way, the story of a hog on ice throws additional light on the origin of the puzzling English idiom to lie doggo. Language historians often boost their conclusions by recourse to analogy. Another broken reed? Not really.

Feature image credit: Free-Photos from Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Maggie Catambay

    What an interesting blog today!

    1. Is Hog on Ice the origin of “hockey”?

    2. What about “let lying dogs lie”?

    3. Cute picture of the doll.

  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    John Cowan ( 6TH NOVEMBER 2019) writes,

    “…dog, like frog is the result of expressive gemination (plus a metathesis): they mean ‘dusky one’ and ‘jumper’ respectively”

    More likely, imho, “frog” derives from “vatrahi” (frog, attested in Ancient Greek). This possibility can be shown if we consider the currently accepted etymology for “frog”.


    “From Middle English frogge, from Old English frogga, frocga (“frog”), from Proto-Germanic *fruþgô (“frog”), a pet-form of Proto-Germanic *fruþ-, *frauþaz (“frog”), deverbative of Proto-Indo-European *prew- (“to jump, hop”). Cognate with Old Norse frauki (“frog”)…”

    Also, “Old English frogga, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch vors and German Frosch .”


    The Old Norse “frauki”(frog) comes closest to the original “vatrahi” attested in Ancient Greek. With “-tra-” > “frau-” while “-hi” > “-ki”. The first syllable “va-” being dropped, as often happens over thousands of years of use in isolation.

    We can expect the transformation of the same original word in various different isolated geographical areas to take on various different forms.

    Interestingly, it appears that the Dutch “vors” kept the first syllable of the original “vatrahi”; while the Old Norse “frauki” kept the other two. Putting these together, “vo-frauki”, forms the Greek “vatrahi”, in my view.

    As for the “deverbative of Proto-Indo-European *prew- (“to jump, hop”)”, this is only a (*)wrong assumption. Putting the “jump” in front of the “frog”.

    The true meaning, on the other hand, of “vatrahi” in Greek comes from the habitat of frogs (“vatos”/wetland) and “trehi” (it runs). The association to “jump” likely came later. Like in “leapfrog”.

    Further, since “vatrahi”(frog) has direct meaning in Greek, and is a composite of two ancient Greek words, it cannot be PIE.


  3. Michael

    Interesting idiom. As an American, I had not heard it before. I am very familiar with ‘to dog down’ (keep in place), and it does not seem like a big jump from a meaning of ‘to lie in place’ to ‘to lie hidden’.

  4. Rudy Troike

    Any possible connection with the modifier “doggone” (usually a euphemistic substitute for “damned”, as in “so doggone tired”), or is is that just an incorporated derivative of the song “Oh where, oh where, has my little dog gone?” ?

  5. Gibb-Read

    Appreciate your research; educational and amusing.
    Let sleeping dogs lie. From youth that phrase was a cautionary akin to “don’t stir the pot” – after an anger, disagreement, incident had calmed down.

  6. Jana Kafka

    Down South, we have an accusation: “You lie like a yeller dog” for cowardly liars afraid of being found out, and/or the consequences of the lie.

  7. Vivian Ramalingam

    I appreciate your dogged pursuit of this phrase.

  8. Eleanor Grene

    It is a better explanation for fire dogs , which up to now I supposed were invented by a dachshund lover.

  9. Mairosu

    recently came across this expression while reading Frank Herbert’s book “The Dragon in the Sea” about futuristic submarine warfare. “To lie doggo” here explicitly implies that one is, basically, “hiding in plain sight” (at least for detection purposes) and can pounce when you’re least expecting it. Herbert was an American so I guess this expression appeared in the States before, but one wonders whether it was restricted to mariner’s jargon.

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