Hair of the dog
One of the downsides of a night on the electric sauce, particularly for the inexperienced drinker, is the hangover experienced the next morning. Seasoned drinkers have their own remedies for this self-inflicted malaise. Perhaps one of the most famous and, by all accounts, efficacious is Jeeves’ pick-me-up as described in P G Wodehouse’s Jeeves Takes Charge, “If you would drink this, sir,” he said, with a kind of bedside manner, rather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. “It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the Worcester sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they find it extremely invigorating after a late evening.” Many pour copious cups of coffee down their necks whilst others swear that the only remedy is another shot of alcohol as soon as possible. Whatever our particular recipe, we call it a hair of the dog.
One morning when the inner circuits of what few brain cells I have left started to warm up, I wondered where this strange phrase came from. My first surprise was that the phrase topers use liberally is actually a truncation of a longer phrase, the hair of the dog that bit me.
Regular readers of this blog may recall that Samuel Hahnemann was the first to harness the old saw that like cures like into an organised quasi-medical framework. It would seem that a popular antidote to being bitten by a dog – in those days dogs were highly likely to be rabid – was to rub some of the hair of the same dog into the wound. I’m not sure I would be too keen to approach again a mutt which had just sunk its gnashers into my leg or arm but needs must, I suppose.
A rather sceptical Robert James alludes to the supposed cure in his 1760 treatise on Canine Madness, “The hair of the dog that gave the wound is advised as an application to the part injured”. Whilst I’m with James there, he rather ruins the impression he is making by espousing the claims of the application of the ashes of river crabs. Takes all sorts.
What is interesting about this phrase is that its figurative association with drinking or the effects of over-consuming has an earlier provenance in the printed word than its literal medical sense. John Heywood’s 1546 compendium of what he claimed to be all the proverbs in the English tongue contains this charming verse, “I pray thee let me and my fellow have/ A hair of the dog that bit us last night -/ And bitten were we both to the brain aright./ We saw each other drunk in the good ale glass”. I know the feeling!
And Randle Cotgrave’s dictionary of the French and English tongues published in 1611 also associates the phrase with drinking, “Our Ale-knights often use this phrase, and say, Give us a haire of the dog that last bit us”. An ale-knight in this context is a habitual drinker, a charming phrase I’m sure you will agree, and one I’m quite keen to rehabilitate.
The use of dog hair to deal with the symptoms of a rabid dog bite must surely have come first. It is hard to imagine that it was effective but that may be why the phrase then became a figurative allusion to a hangover cure. None in my experience work effectively and the perfect antidote is as elusive as using the hairs of the dog that bit you to cure rabies.