Why do we use dog and cat metaphors so negatively?

As regular readers would have guessed by now, I am very fond of Baxter the Wonder Dog. I think it is safe to say that most people either like dogs a lot or are indifferent to them, with only a few actively disliking them.

So it puzzles me that people have come to accept the use of the word ‘dog’ as a pejorative, most often with reference to women. To call something or someone ‘a real dog’ is not a compliment but implies that the thing is lousy or that a person is really unattractive. And of course, the word ‘bitch’ and ‘son of a bitch’ are used as insults, as if a female dog is the worst thing one could be called.

To be called a ‘dog’ or a ‘bitch’ should really be considered compliments since they are in reality so loving and loyal and friendly and affectionate.

The same thing is true for cats, although it is used in a more specialized way. The word ‘catty’, with the accompanying growl and the slashing gesture, is used to describe women negatively with respect to a particular attitude.

This is really weird. Unfortunately the situation is likely too far gone and we cannot save these words from their completely unwarranted negative connotations.


  1. CJO says

    Scavenging packs of feral dogs are not friendly or affectionate. Usage doesn’t always track recent developments in society like widespread ownership of dogs for companionship. In the not-so-distant past, dogs were either livestock or dangerous (especially as rabies was fatal), and were in any case not thought of as cute and cuddly at all.

  2. invivoMark says

    I think “bitch” is intended to refer to the attitude of a dog at a particular stage of pregnancy, where the dog is very moody and will growl at or attack anything with little provocation (or so the stereotype goes).

    On the other hand… ‘Yo dawg! You are one cool cat!’

  3. Jared A says

    I feel like it is a mixed bag. Sure, there are many insults, many of which are quite old. In older texts it seems like calling someone a dog implied that they had no manners or principles. But there are many other animal insults: goat, cow, pig, hind, beast, bear, bully, etc. Most seem to imply a (bestial) lack of one moral or another. Or just that you are ugly, because people are mean like that.

    But not all dog words are slurs. Calling someone a hound can be negative, neutral, or even positive. Puppy-like words are usually more positive than negative. And as Eddie Izzard points out, “the dog’s balls” is positive. As in, “Oh yeah, I love the queen, she’s the dog’s balls!”

  4. sunny says

    “[…] since they are in reality so loving and loyal and friendly and affectionate.”

    I am not sure why dog-owners, especially and dog-lovers are fond of this myth. I think they are completely unpredictable animals and I don’t trust them. In any case, I find their desperate need for attention rather annoying.

    Having been chased down a street by dog at age five – for no particular reason – was enough to put me off dogs. Count me among those along with Rafael Nadal who are indifferent to them.

  5. callistacat says

    “I find their desperate need for attention rather annoying.”

    Like Robert DeNiro says (in Meet The Parents): “Cats make you work for their affection, they don’t sell out the way dogs do.”

    So true. 🙂

  6. wholething says

    Many cliches in the English language come from Shakespeare and the Bible. Maybe this one comes from Matthew 15:22-28 where Jesus implies the Canaanite woman is like a dog.

  7. Alverant says

    Why stop at dogs and cats? Bovines are often used in insults (for example “bullshit”), as are foxes, horses, fishes, comparing people to animals in a negative light is about as old as language itself.

    #3 sure you don’t mean “The Cat’s Pajamas”?

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    “Bitch”, when applied to a woman, historically meant a whore.

    If you’ve ever seen the frantic behavior of a (literal) bitch in heat, then watched the antics of working girls competing in a buyers’-market situation, the parallels become blatantly obvious.

    Likewise, “son of a bitch” is the last surviving general instance of “whoreson” in modern English – just why the other forms of that expression have died out would make an interesting story.

  9. left0ver1under says

    Many animals are used to speak of people in both positive and negative ways – snakes, bears, turkeys, foxes, turtle, skunk, alligators, hippopotamuses, elephants, sharks, whales, etc. Most of the time, it’s done as an insult or a descriptive of a person’s behaviour (e.g. eating habits), not the animals’. We’re applying our descriptors to the animals, not accurate descriptions of them. For example, “eat like a horse” and “eat like a bird” are actually backward from reality – horses eat little compared to their body weight (less than humans do), while some birds eat their own weight or more daily.

    Culture also plays a role. In most countries, being called a pig is derogatory, while some look positively on being associated with pigs (e.g. China who see pigs as lucky). In South Korea, people do not want to be associated with green frogs, they are seen as “tricksters” the same way others view snakes.

  10. mnb0 says

    “I think it is safe …”
    I think that’s not so safe.
    Don’t worry, PRB, “hoerenzoon” remains popular enough in The Netherlands. Same for “hijo de puta” in Spanish speaking countries.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    So why does that particular pejorative survive among the Dutch & Spanish*, but not (recognized as such) across the Channel / Puddle?

    It’s not as if English-speakers have taken mothers off the table, so to speak, and put them up on pedestals. The m-word is still good for a brawl in any happenin’ bar, last time I tried it…

    * And I betcha German, Italian & Russian too, not to mention their respective dialectical versions. As for French, I won’t try to predict (has the Academy weighed in on this?).

  12. Charles Sullivan says

    If you call a man a dog it means he is not sexually faithful to his mate. That actually seems a pretty accurate comparison.

  13. Ataraxic says

    I’m sorry you had a bad experience with a dog as a child, but this doesn’t mean you should write off others experiences as mythical. A well balanced, well treated and trained dog IS extremely loyal and affectionate.
    Dogs are extremely observant of body language – far more so than us – and dog body language can be extremely subtle (A dog trainer told me that to a dog, a human’s body language is constant shouting) . A hostile or fearful posture to a dog is like a human screaming in your face. So unfortunately people who are hostile or fearful towards dogs are more likely to have a bad experience.
    That said, it does depend on the dog, as it does from person to person. My friend’s dog is nervous and unpredictable, my girlfriends dog I trust implicitly, more than i do pretty much any human.

  14. Tracey says

    Terriers were created to work independently of humans, either killing rats and other pests in the barnyard, or running along with a hunt or carriage. Consequently, they tend to be pretty smart and in worst case don’t particularly care what the human wants because they were bred by humans to be a working machine ignored by humans. Try food-based rewards; makes it instantly obvious what’s in it for them. 🙂 (Can you tell terriers are my favorite class?)

    My least-favorite class is probably the herding breeds. They’re mostly smart, often independent thinkers, but they NIP and HERD and drive me nuts with their obsessive behaviors. I do not want a dog who tries to control me and who will harass me until I do what it wants. (See? I think like a terrier!)

  15. Jared A says

    I know what you are talking about: rat terriers are killing machines! I love mine a lot, but her antisocial behavior is confusing to anyone that is used to the more “standard” types of dogs. People want to know why she won’t accept pets. It’s cause she doesn’t care about you, she’s just a crazy old lady what got the devil in her.

    On the other hand, my chihuahua/terrier mix is charming as they come, despite the bad reputation. They tag team company pretty well, actually. Chihuahua entertains everyone while the terrier sleeps in the spare bedroom unmolested.

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