Just The Facts, Jack!

Calm down Humedians! An idiom, for those in the market for a sparkly new catch phrase, is just a phrase not meant to be taken in the literal sense. Often it has been in your vernacular for long enough that the origins have been forgotten. A fun example could be my personal favorite – barking mad. Awe…doggy grins galore! The agreed upon definition is pretty much a person being off their rocker. Like how I did that? I used one idiom to describe another’s meaning. 

Most idiom’s histories are undetermined because there are often various ideas of origin. Barking mad could refer to an east London area called Barking. Not moving there soon! Another, older idea refers to a medieval insane asylum, part of Barking Abbey, also in London. 

Looking at the idiom off your rocker, many people think this idiom is associated with elderly people who have fallen from a rocking chair. It’s more likely that the rocker is associated with a mechanism that sits on top of a trolley and is connected to a power line. When the rocker has fallen from the connection, no one is going anywhere.

How about the phrase, wiping the slate clean? It is thought to originate with the Code of Hammurabi of early Babylonians and believed to be the first written code of law. The code was written onto plates of wet clay and baked to preserve it. It is interesting that so many of the tablets found were accounting records of who owed whom. Wiping the slate clean referred to rubbing out the writing on the wet clay so the debt no longer existed. Interestingly enough, the code states that, “not even a dog entering a city may be put to death without a trial.”

Hair of the dog that bit you is a fun idiom associated with drinking an alcoholic beverage the next morning to help ease the pain of drinking the night before. Its early meaning referred to being bitten by a rabid dog and using some of the hair from that animal to make into a concoction to drink or put upon the bite to cure the rabies.  I pity the fool who was charged with catching the rabid dog and getting a hair sample.

Here’s a good one: It’s a dog-eat-dog world.  Sheesh, it’s a bit rude inferring that we eat our own kind, huh? That’s species profiling you know!  It is in fact misconstrued from a Latin phrase that dogs do not eat dogs. It’s understood to mean that it takes a lot for someone to be seriously motivated to eat their own kind. Our current usage of the idiom suggests that people will do literally anything to get what they want.

What if I said you are barking up the wrong tree? That’s easier don’t you think? The origin of this idiom may be a reference to using dogs for hunting. Many of the animals they hunt are chased up trees while fleeing and the dog sits at the bottom of the tree and barks. Raccoons, being the wily critters they are, were famous for tricking dogs into baying up the wrong tree. Current usage of this idiom refers to pursuing a misguided thought or action.

And then, arguably the most common dog-related idiom of all is you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  I feel a bit disloyal to my ancestors and contemporary seniors alike, but this is rather a misnomer. You actually can teach an old dog new tricks…the problem is they are old enough to know that maybe what you’re trying to teach is something they really aren’t interested in learning. Many husbands are secretly smiling now because they know exactly what this means and actively employ said behavior. 

For the older dogs that may want to learn new things …take no heed of this idiom. While it is true that it can take an older brain longer to learn something new, it is not only possible but good for you! Consider this, a study at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, worked with a group of 145 Border Collies, aged six months to 14 years trying to determine several key factors in attention spans and how different ages are engaged. Several factors became apparent that in retrospect are not surprising and are actually similar to human specimens of the same ages. Dogs are much more engaged and for longer periods of time if a human is involved. Turns out that we kinda like you guys!

Older dogs tend to have a calmer demeanor and pay less attention to new items in their environment than younger dogs. Yes, the “squirrel” mentality does diminish with time. The age when a dog was most engaged for lasting periods of time was during the three-to-six-year mark. This is similar to the age that humans peak in sensorimotor skills, which is generally between 20 – 39 years old. 

Dogs between the ages of one and two are having a wild ride with hormones and pheromones which, oh my, is just like human teens.  However, once you get both humans and dogs of these ages engaged, they have the highest learning curve of all the groups.  I have thoroughly considered that old dogs are actually the ones who started this idiom back in the annals of history because in their reclining (on soft dog bed) years they didn’t want to be bothered with silly new tricks.

Leaving you with my favorite quote of the week, “Everything I know I learned from dogs.” – Nora Roberts