SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: Can a dog’s idiom mean two entirely different things?


Someone asked me about our cat Hugo’s passing, and without thinking, I tossed back a bon mot:

“That feline led a dog’s life.”

First things first: maybe it’s best for me to avoid humor when I’m jet-lagged … and what the hell is a bon mot?

bon mot

bän ˈmō

noun: bon mot; plural noun: bon mots; plural noun: bons mots

a witty remark.

synonyms: witticism, quip, pun, pleasantry, jest, joke

origin: mid 18th century: French, literally ‘good word.’

I had no sooner uttered the words “a dog’s life” than the raging doubts started. When we speak about a dog’s life in this sense, do we mean it was a good existence (my intended connotation) or a bad one?

Actually, it can mean both such lives — perhaps depending on when the speaker was born.

Noun: dog’s life (plural dogs’ lives)

(idiomatic) A miserable, wretched existence.

(idiomatic) A life of indolence where the individual may do as he or she pleases, just like a pampered dog.

Usage notes

Originally the term referred to the hard life of the working dog: sleeping in a damp barn, chasing rats and other intruders, living on scraps, etc. Today, however, it has in some circles acquired the completely opposite connotation indicated in sense 2.

I looked at a few other explanations off-line, and it seems that in the late 1990s, the view remained intact that “a dog’s life” implies a short and unhappy one. Since then, the “pampered” definition seems to have gained ascendance.

We miss Hugo a lot, and maybe the truth of the matter is that he was a perfect exemplar of a “(house) cat’s life,” with the dogs having nothing whatever to do with it, whether indoors or outside.