What Is The Origin Of (251)?…

See a man about a dog

As a nation we are a little bit coy about matters lavatorial. To go and see a man about a dog is a well-established euphemism for excusing yourself to go and visit the toilet but where did the phrase come from and why a dog?

It is tempting to think that the canine in the phrase is there simply as a rhyming synonym for a slang word for a toilet, bog. However, it is unlikely to be the case because the first recorded instances of the phrase, in print at least, have nothing directly to do with going to the toilet.

The first example appeared in the wonderfully titled periodical, the Anti-Teapot Review: A Magazine of Politics, Literature, and Art, which appeared in London in the 1860s. Quite what they had against teapots is anybody’s guess. The edition of November 15, 1865 carried an article called On Falling In and Out of Love. The husband with a wandering eye, evades his wife’s enquiries as to what is wrong with her. “The husband will meekly excuse himself from offering an explanation; feel himself henpecked; and twice a week, at least, will find that he has to absent himself by going to London, to see a man about a dog or on some other important business”.

A year later the phrase cropped up again in a play entitled The Flying Scud; or, a Four-legged Fortune by Dionysius Boucicault. In Act 4, scene 1 the lawyer, Quail by name, informs Mo Davis, a follower of the turf, that his deception has been rumbled thus; “I have just heard that the bill I discounted for you bearing Lord Woodbie’s name is a forgery. I give you twelve hours to find the money and provide for it”. Realising he is in a ticklish situation the wily Mo looks at his pocket watch and remarks, “Excuse me, Mr Quail, I can’t stop; I’ve got to see a man about a dog. I forgot all about it till just now”.

So, in its earliest incarnation the phrase was used as a means of getting out of a tricky situation by claiming a pressing prior appointment of an unspecified nature. Indeed, the alternative engagement may very well be an imaginary one. There were a number of variants, the most popular being to see a man about a horse. Others include go and feed the goldfish, go and mail a letter, and go to one’s private office. You get the drift.

In its early incarnation the phrase was used specifically to reference slipping away for an alcoholic refreshment. A report on the important process of counting electoral votes carried by the Indianapolis News on February 2, 1877 noted that at 3pm, “it has been a long time between drinks, and members quietly slip out in mobs of two to six, to see a man about a dog at Sanderson’s”. Over in Glasgow the delights of an exhibition at the Fine Art Institute in Sauchiehall Street were insufficient, at least according to the Glasgow Evening News of February 2, 1889, to hold the attention of a good proportion of the male attendees who “went out occasionally to see a man about a dog, for there was not a glass of claret nor a cracknel on the premises”.

It was only later, well into the 20th century, that the phrase was used specifically to reference going to the toilet. I don’t think we need to read anything specific in the quest for a dog. It was just an excuse, as good as any other, to leave without letting on why or where you were going. After all, there are just too many Paul Prys and nosey parkers around.

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