"They talk about me like a dog"

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President Obama went off script, briefly, on Labor Day in Milwaukee:

That's been at the heart of what we've been doing over these last twenty months, building our economy on a new foundation, so that our middle class doesn't just survive this crisis, I want it to thrive. I want it to be stronger than it was before. And- and over the last two year(s) that's meant taking on some powerful interests. Some powerful interests who had been dominating the agenda in Washington for a very long time, and they're not always happy with me. They talk about me like a dog.

That's not in my prepared remarks, it's just- but it's true.

A surprising number of bloggers and commentators took this to be evidence of Obama's true Muslim nature.  A comment on Michelle Malkin's site, for example:

Yes, this is probably his Indonesian/Muslim early upbringing speaking. Americans might say, “Treat me like a dog,” but in my 56 years I have never heard the expression, “They talk about me like a dog.”

That commenter was 15 in 1969, when Jimi Hendrix released Stone Free, but apparently he was listening to other kinds of music at the time:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

… people try to pull me down,
they talk about me like a dog,
talk about the clothes I wear …

This led to a certain number of commentators suggesting that Obama was quoting Hendrix.

But neither the sekrit muslin theory nor the hippie revival theory seems likely to be true.  Even for those who haven't lived among people who use this expression, and don't know anybody they could ask about it, it's easy enough to do a quick check via Google Books. This would turn up, for example, this passage from Ebony in 1994:

In an interview, Bobby [Brown] say he is disgusted by the way he is portrayed in the media. 'The press has really destroyed my name," he says. "They don't know me and they talk about me like a dog. It's lies! they don't check sources. I just don't like the way they slander my name."

Or this passage from An Anthology of African American sermons, 1650 to the Present:

The only way you can bother me out there is if I let you in here. And so I've decided tonight, you ain't getting in here. Roll your eyes at me; cuss me out; talk about me like a dog, but you ain't getting in, because, Satan, I know where you want to go. You want to control my reality. You want me to believe that this pain that I'm experiencing is more powerful than the joy of the healing that God can bring.

If they have access to Proquest Historical Newspapers, they could find this advice column from 12/14/1961 in the Chicago Daily Tribune:

Dear Miss Hurley: My best girl friend and my current boy friend used to go steady. I didn't date him until they'd broken up. Now she talks about me like a dog. My friends say she's jealous and wants my boy friend, but he can't stand her and she knows it. How can I get her to stop talking about me?           Wondering

Dear Wondering: Your friends get the pitch and when she she realizes her chatter can't upset you either, she'll find something else to talk about.

Or they could check the NYT index and find this quote from Jason Diamos, "Robinson's 44 Points Overwhelm Bradley and the Nets", 3/9/1996:

SAN ANTONIO, March 8—  A clinic. That is about the only way to describe what David Robinson put on for Shawn Bradley tonight. [...]

"Because I've been playing well, the other centers, especially the really good ones, are stepping up their games and working hard," Bradley said. "David stepped up."

"I know the fellas are going to talk about me like a dog if the guy comes in here and embarrasses me," Robinson said.

I mean, really.



66 Comments

  1. Mr. Fnortner said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 10:18 pm

    Very informative and revealing explanation, but…two questions: One, what does "like a dog" mean? "Like people talk about a dog" or "like I were a dog"? And, two, how about some examples of talking about someone like a dog?

    [(myl) I don't know, maybe both -- but here's another Google Books quote that may be relevant, from Isa Glenn, "A short history of Julia", 1930:

    To stand there over 'im and talk about the pore critter like he was a dog an' you could kick 'im an' he wouldn't bite back — to say those things about 'im, ...

    And in answer to the second question, from p. 241 of Ray Charles' autobiography:

    In the forties, many chicks thought that uninhibited sex was odd or, even worse, dirty. They'd talk about a man like he was a dog. They'd call him crude, call him filthy, call him cocksucker.

    ]

  2. sarang said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 10:34 pm

    They talk about me like the dog that didn't bark up the wrong tree.

  3. Barry Popik said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

    See:

    http://www.redstate.com/barrypopik/2010/09/07/they-talk-about-me-like-a-dog-isnt-from-hendrix-but-its-from/

    http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/they_talk_about_me_like_a_dog/

  4. Ray Girvan said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

    And Google News archive.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 10:58 pm

    "Stone Free" was originally released in the U.K. at the end of '66 but reissued (possibly for the first time in the U.S.?) in '69. With "If 6 Was 9" as the b-side of the '69 version, ironically enough. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stone_Free.

  6. No/Deli said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 11:12 pm

    Okay, a huge laugh-out-loud at "sekrit muslin" though.

  7. Mark P said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 11:43 pm

    I saw the clip on the news, and the only thing that caught my attention was his pronunciation of "dog." I listened to this clip a few times to see how close it was to the way he pronounced it on the Leno or Letterman show when he talked about getting his daughters a pet. At that time he pronounced it like I do (or did when younger), as a native Southern speaker. I don't think it was quite as obvious this time.

    I guess that distracted me and I missed the dog whistle.

  8. Rubrick said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 11:50 pm

    Forget talking like a dog. The real evidence he's Muslim is that he walks like an Egyptian.

  9. McLemore said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

    Rubrick: hahahahaha love that.

  10. Atmir Ilias said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 12:13 am

    "They talk about me like a dog."
    I was not able to understand of what kind of dogs he was talking about. There are approximately 77.5 million owned dogs in the United States.
    And I do not know that the dogs have a human language, although they live with us for thousands of years.
    .

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 12:49 am

    @Atmir Ilias: Of course dogs have a human language. It's just lucky for us they can't utter it.

    Seriously, the general idea is, "They talk about me with as little respect as if I were a dog." What kind of dog isn't important. I don't think the distinction between "as if I were a dog" and "as if in talking about me they were talking about a dog" is important either.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 12:51 am

    @myl: Thanks for finding a quotation including "they don't check sources".

  13. Diane said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 1:19 am

    In the quotes you gave above, everyone whose ethnicity I can identify is African-American, except for Isa Glenn who seems to be a white Southerner. So perhaps this expression is black English (or maybe Southern)?

    [(myl) Yes, I think so. By the way, here's how Time Magazine began its review of Isa Glenn's novel Southern Impudence in 1928:

    There are few more ludicrous members of the U. S. population than the garrulous women who stray from rustic homes below the Mason & Dixon Line into the complicated excitements of Northern metropolitanism, there to stand, like cats in the rain, meowing about their cousins, Southern courtesy, and Robert E. Lee. These women are a small class; but they are a class which may be stamped upon vigorously, with the hobnailed heel of satire.

    ]

  14. Avery said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 2:10 am

    The excerpts you pick seem to show it comes from African American vernacular. That should pretty much explain why conservatives have never heard this phrase before and believe it's some sort of anti-American reference (although to be fair, I've never heard it either).

  15. D.O. said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 2:43 am

    Of course, it is unfair to scrutinize little details of extemporaneous speech, but… That's not in my prepared remarks, it's just- but it's true. What that's supposed to mean? He began talking something along the lines That's not in my prepared remarks, it's just pisses me off and I'm not gonna be silent about it anymore, but decided to cut himself off and just reiterate that it's true? Or That's not in my prepared remarks, it's just considered to be not presidential to whine about this stuff in a speech, but it's true? Or?..

  16. Disfraz said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 3:28 am

    @D.O.

    To me it seemed more like it's just come into my head right now. Especially with the way his right thumb turned upwards briefly as he said it, which says Well, you can infer the end of that sentence. Or something like that.

  17. Nijma said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 4:25 am

    I heard that phrase plenty working in an office 40 blocks from Obama's former church on the South Side of Chicago. Definitely AA. It's always said in the same way too, with the emphasis on the last word which is drawn out. It's often said of a guy who badmouths his girlfriend behind her back. I haven't heard the phrase as much lately though– maybe it's dated or belongs to a certain generation or I've moved further south.

  18. Will said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 4:39 am

    @D.O., I really don't think he thought it through to either of those ends. I think it was just the result of a sort of visceral emotional reaction that happened during a teleprompter lull. Also, while it's true that I've never heard that phrase (that exact sequence of words), I still found it to be entirely comprehensible, clear, and unremarkable because it is so similar to many other idioms that I have heard. I am actually mildly shocked that the media picked it out at all as an unusual expression.

  19. Bea said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 8:07 am

    I find it interesting that many of the bloggers that came up on the link posted near the beginning of the article seem to insist that using expressions with "dog" as an insult is a purely Muslim concept. Have people forgotten that one of the most common insults (granted, used almost exclusively for women) is "bitch," which refers to a female dog? Despite dog's current position in American society as "man's best friend," treating someone or talking to someone like a dog is still considered insulting.

    By the way, I absolutely loved the closing like to this article. "I mean, really." My thoughts exactly!

  20. Mr. Fnortner said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 8:24 am

    @myl: Thank you for the clarification. For the record, even my dog doesn't like it when I talk to it like a dog.

  21. tablogloid said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 8:29 am

    The first thing that came to mine when I heard the expression, "They talk about me like a dog.", is that someone called Obama a "son of a bitch." There is no doubt in my mind that is what he meant.

  22. tablogloid said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 8:30 am

    er… typo above: "came to mind…

  23. Dan said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 8:44 am

    Three words: "Terrorist fist bump."

    [(myl) Do you mean this one, or this one?]

  24. Mark P said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 8:48 am

    Just to make my earlier comment more explicit – this exact expression might be more common among blacks than white Southerners, but it sounded completely unremarkable to me, a white Southerner.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    But of course the President does not have any native command of Black English / AAVE, which is unsurprising since no one in his family spoke it and quite few of his childhood peers in Indonesia or Hawaii spoke it. He was I believe well into his 20's (probably when he moved to Chicago to get into the community-organizing business) before he spent a high percentage of his day regularly interacting with AAVE speakers. So he might have picked up this turn of phrase in Chicago to the extent he was rather self-consciously trying to shift his register/lexicon to seem like less of an outsider, and then assimilated it w/o recalling where it came from. Or he might have (perhaps less self-consciously) picked it up from his wife's family (who would presumably have some familiarity with AAVE locutions even if their syntax/pronunciation were more SAE). Or he might have picked it up in his teens from the Jimi Hendrix song exactly the same way his white dopesmoking high school contemporaries might have.

    Backing up more generally, while "Muslim dog-whistle" should certainly not be the default explanation of any seeming oddity/novelty in the President's language usage, I don't think that AAVE-ism should be either.

    [(myl) Except that in this case, it's obviously a standard colloquialism among African Americans and maybe American southerners in general. I encountered it in the U.S. Army (1969-1972) often enough to recognize it instantly, and I expect that I've used it myself a couple of times in the past 40 years, along with a few of the other expressions that I picked up in my late teens and early twenties.]

  26. Kirk Hazen said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 9:49 am

    In the US South, "like a dog" or "as a dog" generally means something bad. It is not about "dogs" as a species. To say, "I'm sick as a dog" is to mean you are really sick. To talk about someone "like a dog" is to treat them as if they are the lowest of the low (socioeconomically speaking).

    For the traditional, farming South, dogs were not indoor pets. They were outdoors, roaming around, eating what they could find, throwing it up where they would. As AAVE has most of its roots in the US South, such expressions could be fairly common.

    [(myl) It's not just in the south, or even in the U.S. Expressions like "die like a dog", "dog's dinner", etc., are old and widespread. And "you dirty dog!" is positively fustian. Here's Peter Pindar, Ode X (1816):

    17 But who from scandal is exempt?
    18 Who does not meet at times contempt?
    19 Great Jove, the god of gods, in figures rich,
    20 Oft call'd his bosom queen a saucy bitch ;
    21 Achilles call'd great Agamemnon hog ,
    22 An impudent, deceitful, dirty dog !

    And Anthony Trollope, Doctor Throne:

    Get out of the room, Winterbones,' he then said gruffly, as though he were dismissing from his chamber a dirty dog.

    ]

  27. Eric said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 9:56 am

    Thank you so much! I was waiting for the Language Log post about this, because my first thought was, "Really? 'Stone Free' was the first time this phrase was used?" but of course googling it only brought up recent news stories about Obama's "off-script" remarks.

  28. Theophylact said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 10:00 am

    There's also a suggestion of "they act as if I didn't understand what they're saying about me".

  29. Rodger C said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 10:52 am

    As a white Southerner, I took Obama's remarks as normal colloquial English and was amazed they caused controversy. As for the negative associations of dogs being a Muslim thing, I thought conservatives read the Bible.

    [(myl) Indeed. The King James version has 46 matches for "dog", from both the old testament (e.g. Deuteronomy 23:18 "Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the LORD thy God for any vow: for even both these are abomination unto the LORD thy God") and the new, including my favorite, Revelations 22:15: "For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie". How true it is.]

  30. William Ockham said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 11:19 am

    If people want to understand this phrase, they would be well advised to study Shakespeare. He repeatedly used "dog" or, more often "cur" , as his insult of choice. I've no evidence to back up this claim, but I'm pretty sure that the popularity of this phrase traces back to Shakespeare. As a white Southerner (and Obama sympathizer), what struck me about his use of this phrase was the honesty of it. To my ear, it was an earthy, visceral reaction to the insults the man puts up with.

  31. Nijma said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    Another fist bump.

  32. Rodger C said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    @Mark: Those are two of the verses where "dog" is often said to be a euphemism for "male prostitute."

    @William Ockham: Shakespeare seems to have had an unusual dislike for dogs (for a northern European) and often refers to their infectious bites. One suspects a childhood trauma. One of those many places where people try to infer his biography from his works.

  33. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    Perhaps a dozen years ago I heard a sermon preached on the subject of how the old Hebraic dislike for dogs had been replaced by the more positive Hellenistic view as part of the cultural synthesis of early Christianity. There is a positive Scriptural portrayal of a dog in the Book of Tobit, whose canonicity is not accepted by Jews and (at least most) Protestants. (In the Vulgate, St. Jerome supposedly has that dog wagging his tail, but that charming detail was apparently missing from the Greek vorlage used by the King James translators.)

    Just to clarify my earlier comment: as it happens, in this case due to his own non-scholarly life experiences, myl already recognized the expression as occurring in black (and perhaps Southern white) vernacular, and that was then easy enough to document and confirm via online examples. By contrast, I don't think I would have recognized it as that (I have spent no time in the military but did spend 8th-12th grades in public schools with a 25-30% black student body, so I may have had more youthful exposure to AAVE than Pres. Obama did), so I wouldn't have started with that hypothesis to confirm. However, the more useful point is perhaps that a google books search might lead you fairly quickly to the AAVE-origin hypothesis even if you didn't have that as your starting point. My claim is simply that the default ex ante hypothesis for an unusual-sounding expression from this particular president (given what we know of his own speech and personal history) should not be AAVE-origin absent other clues (such as, in this case, myl's prior familiarity with the expression).

  34. Peter Gerdes said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    @Mr. Fnortner said,

    >@myl: Thank you for the clarification. For the record, even my dog doesn't like it when I talk to it like a dog.

    Really? My dog gets all excited when I bark at her. Not very good yet at talking like a dog but I haven't put in much study. In particular I can't figure out what the strange yawn-whine means (like a half-whine but often with wide open mouth)

  35. rhhardin said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

    Thurber somewhere said that "Die like a dog" had the wrong animal to convey what it conveys, and "Die like a duck" would be better.

    A dog once was a different animal, socially; see Empson's "The English Dog" in _The Structure of Complex Words_. E.g.,

    "Before the Restoration the dog of metaphor, by and large, is snarling, a sycophant, an underdog, loose in sex and attracted by filth, cruel if it dare; 'love me, love my dog' means 'love the meanest thing about me'… (p.163)

  36. Ian Preston said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

    There is a positive Scriptural portrayal of a dog in the Book of Tobit, whose canonicity is not accepted by Jews and (at least most) Protestants.

    Canonicity brought into doubt by caninicity?

  37. tablogloid said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    Doesn't that "American Idol" judge named Randy call every male "dog."
    Don't forget "Mad Dogs and Englishmen only go out in the noonday sun."
    What about those Australians and their "Three dog nights" ?

  38. Mark Liberman said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

    J.W. Brewer: Perhaps a dozen years ago I heard a sermon preached on the subject of how the old Hebraic dislike for dogs had been replaced by the more positive Hellenistic view as part of the cultural synthesis of early Christianity.

    Judging by the entry for canis in Lewis & Short, the Romans were not great dog-lovers either:

    B. esp.
    1. As a term of reproach, to denote,
    a. A shameless, vile person
    b. A fierce or enraged person
    2. As the regular designation of the hangers-on or parasites of an eminent or rich Roman; a follower, dog, creature

    and also

    C. The worst throw with dice, the dog-throw (cf. canicula and alea)

    And the entry in Liddell & Scott for κύων has

    II. as a word of reproach, freq. in Hom. of women, to denote shamelessness or audacity [...] implying recklessness [...] also of offensive persons, compared to yapping dogs,

    also

    VI. the ace, the worst throw at dice

    So "more positive", maybe; but not yet actually non-negative, I think.

  39. JimG said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

    "Talk about me like a dog" doesn't resonate for me, but "treat me like a dog" absolutely does.

  40. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    Maybe the claim should be that the ancient Hebraic view of dogs was pretty consistently negative whereas Hellenistic views were mixed and covered a wide range of both negative and positive attitudes, w/o needing to specify whether the median of that range fell in positive or negative territory. So, for example, the Illiad opens (4 or 5 lines in) with the unflattering image of dogs joining with vultures to gnaw at the corpses of defunct Achaian heroes, but then later on Homer has the very striking passage where Odysseus sneaking back to Ithaca in disguise is recognized at once by his faithful old dog. It's the absence of the latter sort of thing that's noticeable in the Old Testament (and, I have heard it claimed, in Islamic sources, although I don't know enough to confirm that).

  41. PWT said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    "I know you rider"

    I'd rather drink muddy water, sleep in a hollow log
    I'd rather drink muddy water, sleep in a hollow log
    Than stay here in Frisco, be treated like a dog

  42. ignoramus said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    "Give a Dog an ill Name, and he'll soon be hanged. Spoken of those who raise an ill Name on a Man on purpose to prevent his Advancement."
    [1721 J. Kelly Scottish Proverbs 124]

    Until the Charles II's, dogs were work dogs, that is to help feed the family
    not the idle pooches or the privileged duchesses kept on laps awaiting the pleasure of his RH of the modern era or the just companions of the lonely moderns.
    The Idle rich would expect their hounds to earn their keep but if lucky got a barn to sleep in and leftovers for doing a good job of bull baiting, thus any one that was fed crumbs and treated as a cur and sent off to the outer fields with a flea in their ear and were talked about to like a dog.
    So the recipient of such treatment would say,"They talk about me like a dog "
    Of course statements by the under class rarely made a the records of history.
    For centuries only well polished words were kept for posterity, now with access to all comments by us ignorant ones or by the well versed can be read by all layers of the populace.

  43. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    Regarding Ancient Greek attitudes to dogs: Plato compares the Guardians in his ideal state to dogs, claiming that they are spirited and philosophical (in the somewhat attenuated sense that they are able to recognise their friends). However, the Cynic school were compared to dogs because of their alleged shamelessness. So yes, there were both positive and negative attiutdes.

  44. George said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

    J.W. Brewer: In a word search of the Qur'an, I found three mentions of dog. The verses are a little esoteric, but my initial reaction is that they are neither negative nor positive.

    There is a tradition (Islamic or Arabian culture?) that dogs are unclean. I lived in Saudi Arabia for several years and dogs were not common pets. However, expats were allowed to have 'guard dogs.' So, our 'guard' Yorkie accompanied us. She confirmed her status when the inspector at the airport reached in her kennel (fortunately, he survived).

  45. myke said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

    i am pretty sure it is just some low-on-the-radar (excuse excessive hyphening) african-american expression. not sure why it is warranting excessive analyzation.

  46. Balloon Juice » Blog Archive » You’re the man now, dog said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 11:02 pm

    [...] reader who studies linguistics sends a long an interesting piece about the phrase "talk about me like a dog". I like the fact that wingtards thought it [...]

  47. Atmir Ilias said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 11:38 pm

    Who are they that treated him like hi was a dog?
    If the President does not tell their names, it is just having some more holes in the water.
    So,can we verify the truth of our president?[That's not in my prepared remarks, it's just- but it's true.]We don't know the other supposed bad side.
    His speech is based on personal preferences and it's a fault in premise..
    The truth ,of course, needs some more information to be known by the people, but the most important thing ,I think, is that the nation needs the unity and a balanced president.

  48. Quaker in a Basement said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 12:03 am

    If Obama's remark is an indicator of his upbringing among Muslims, explain Elvis.

  49. Nijma said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 12:16 am

    Doesn't that "American Idol" judge named Randy call every male "dog."

    Wouldn't that be, uh, "dawg"?

  50. dirk alan said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 12:23 am

    spliff doggie dog.

  51. TooManyJens said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 12:33 am

    "A surprising number of bloggers and commentators took this to be evidence of Obama's true Muslim nature. "

    I think it's adorable that you find this surprising.

  52. maidhc said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 3:43 am

    Quaker in a Basement: Elvis was a Muslim!

    Obvious in retrospect: El Viz. The vizier. Arabic for "The Prez".

    There's also El Vez, the "Mexican Elvis" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Vez)

    But it was Big Mama Thornton who did the original "Hound Dog". Written by Leiber and Stoller (two Jews) and backed by a band led by Johnny Otis (Greek-American). But all three of them were saturated with African-American culture.

    I remember seeing an interview with one of the Coasters, who recorded a lot of Leiber-Stoller songs, saying "These guys know my culture better than I do!".

    You can wag your tail, but I ain't gone feed you no more

  53. hamletta said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 3:51 am

    Maybe it's because I'm a Southerner, but I didn't think anything about the President's turn of phrase, and I find the resulting kerfuffle rather silly.

    But if we're compiling canine references, I saw one in a Brit movie recently that made me do a Nipper-style head-tilt.

    The movie is "Still Crazy," about a '70s rock band reforming 20 years later for a lost-youth-and-greed tour.

    The main female character is the band's former gofer who's now their manager. In the making-of piece, the actress talks about her character as their runner, their nursemaid, their "dog's body."

    Well, I thought it was interesting. It's also a really good movie, if you happen to run across it.

    [(myl) According to the OED, the original meaning of dogsbody was "A sailor's name for dried pease boiled in a cloth", and following that, a junior officer and thus "A junior person, esp. one to whom a variety of menial tasks is given; a drudge, a general utility person. colloq..

    1922 T. E. LAWRENCE Lett. (1938) 365 I'll have got used to being a dog's body.
    1928 Daily Express 3 Apr. 13/2 A midshipman is known..in the service as a ‘snottie’... If he is a junior midshipman he is also a ‘dog's body’. I defy anyone to be accurate and sentimental about a snottie who is a dog's body.
    1950 L. A. G. STRONG Which I Never v. 169 As Assistant Stage Manager and general dog's body, she was grossly overworked and supremely happy.
    1955 H. SPRING These Lovers fled Away vii. 205 My status was never defined. I was everybody's dog's-body. Ibid. xvii. 481 Introduced to a secretary whose dog's-body she was to be.

    It's not clear where the body part of dog's body came from, but maybe it was something like sense 22.c. for body, "The paste or clay (of a particular kind) used in the manufacture of porcelain".]

  54. Mnemosyne said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 3:54 am

    My claim is simply that the default ex ante hypothesis for an unusual-sounding expression from this particular president (given what we know of his own speech and personal history) should not be AAVE-origin absent other clues (such as, in this case, myl's prior familiarity with the expression).

    I'm not a linguist, but that seems contrary to, well, all of human experience. When I first moved to California 20 years ago, I drank "pop." Within about six months, I switched to "soda." It's very very very (did I mention very?) common for people to pick up the slang of a new place, and Obama lived in Chicago for over 20 years before he became a US senator and he was deeply immersed in the AA community in Chicago. I really don't understand this assumption that a guy living in an AA community couldn't possibly learn and start using slang expressions common in that community in the course of 20 years.

  55. Aimai said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 8:06 am

    Mnemosyne is absolutely correct. I,too, made the switch from tonic to soda not when I moved but when I went to the local university. Townie speech was seamlessly dropped for the dialect spoken by my new peers. Not necessarily for self interested motives–there were no status issues involved, but because people are naturally imitative and can easily code switch to set their new community at ease.

    Aimai

  56. rpsms said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 10:24 am

    exactly right. plus, it is a great phrase.

  57. Dan said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    @George

    J.W. Brewer: In a word search of the Qur'an, I found three mentions of dog. The verses are a little esoteric, but my initial reaction is that they are neither negative nor positive."

    I believe you'll want to look in the hadith.

  58. MissBetsy said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    The "body" in dogsbody is because dried pease boiled in a cloth (or pudding bag) hold together in a very unappetising mass. If done right it has to be sliced with a knife. So since sailors had wonderful names for things, it might have looked like a boiled dog without extremities. In one of the Jack Aubrey novels, the officers eat a boiled pudding which happens to be somewhat transparent, it is called (with great relish) "Boiled Baby!!!!!!!!!! Of course you all know "Spotted Dick" (boiled pudding with raisins) a great treat. It was also sometimes called "Spotted Dog" I believe.

    [(myl) Some further notes on food in the Aubrey/Maturin novels are here and here. You may be right about the metaphorical origin of dogsbody, but I always assumed that the "body" in question was fecal matter...]

  59. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

    My point may have been misunderstood. I'm certainly not claiming that the President acquired no bits of lexicon or turns of phrase of AAVE origin during his Chicago years (where of course he was also spending lots of time interacting in non-AAVE speech communities, such as the U. of Chicago law faculty). Rather, I'm claiming that he's had a sufficiently unusual and varied life in terms of the nature and range of potential influences on his idiolect (especially when compared to the median U.S. citizen with the same shade of skin he has) that it is hazardous to treat AAVE-origin as the default explanatory hypothesis for any unusual-sounding thing he might say, absent independent reason (which, again, myl happened to have in this particular instance) to suspect that the particular phrase or lexical item might be AAVE-origin. And I'm not sure that the pop/soda/tonic examples are that helpful. Is is really the case that native black Chicagoans uniformly use "talk about me like a dog" as the only form of words to express that particular concept, such that you would overtly mark yourself as an outsider by continuing to use an alternative phrasing for the same concept that might have been current in your pre-Chicago speech community of origin? Could we see some isoglosses?

    Let me put it this way: if the President said something non-standard-sounding and various internet blowhards who disliked him assumed it was of AAVE origin but a scholarly LL post then demonstrated otherwise, how would you react?

  60. George said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

    @Dan: "I believe you'll want to look in the hadith."

    Yes, there could well be a Hadith that addresses dogs (kilaab).

    My wife, an Egyptian-American, is not familiar with any Islamic prohibitions. But, she is a Christian and wouldn't know the finer points of Islamic law. She thinks that the paucity of dogs in Cairo is due more to economics and congestion issues than religion. On rare occasion, I have seen Egyptians with dogs in Cairo. But, they could be Christians and they always seem to be upper class.

  61. Bobby Newmark said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

    Someone who was 15 in 1969 and not listening to Jimi Hendrix is to be pitied rather than scorned.

  62. goatchowder said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    Read his autobiography. In high school, he had a buddy who was the only other brother at the school, who went out of his way to put on the whole black power thing, and then in college in LA at Occidental too, he hung with some conscious brothers, all of whom spoke AAVE with pride (and, as Obama hinted at in his book, more than a little affectation too). Then of course when he went to South Side, very many the folks he was working with spoke AAVE, as does, as another commenter noted, his wife's family. And a lot of the athletes he follows (he's a basketball fan and watches sports). So he knows the expression, and it fit perfectly where he inserted it.

  63. The Bad Guys and Obama’s Dog Comment | Porch Dog said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 10:39 pm

    [...] Language Log researches the line using the obscure data-mining tool Google and finds several historical examples dating back to the 60s. Wonkette (half-?) jokes that, based on these examples, we can only determine that Obama is black. [...]

  64. sharmajee said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    Here is an idea; could it be that "talk about me like a dog" is a reference to the Talkers, not the dog! An obvious street expression, it's also an example of an inversion not uncommon among the less literary. Further, it would seem to be a textual recasting obtained to parallel the sense of such expressions as:

    'Barking dogs seldom bite'
    'He is all bark and no bite'
    'Barking up the wrong tree'

    Again, it is not uncommon for the uneducated, or children, to recast proverbs and expressions.

    I suspect that the president is suggesting that his critics are making futile attempts, and wanted to have a little fun at Their expense! The gleam in his eyes that preceded the off-script remark hints that he knows something – a street expression – the audience might not, as he it happened often while campaigning. Someday, that little grin might show up on http://futurefox.blogs.fox.com/category/lie-to-me/

  65. Southernldy said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 10:00 am

    I haven't taken the time to read ALL previous comments…but I'm 60 years old and born/raised in Georgia and trust me……..Ive heard this phrase all my life. I was a country girl……..so maybe it came from the language of "country folk"………inherited as much as our other "southernisms" from the Scots and Irish mishmash of language that evolved from our ancestry….throw in a little Black America…you have it!

    And……….yep….it means…talk about me LIKE they would talk about a dog…….not in the sense of folks turning their pets into humans as most try to do today……..but in the sense…..dogs are a lower step on the developmental/intelligence ladder, OK??? not as smart……..just a dumb critter!

    I expect if President Obama said "I'm fixin' to go to the limo now." no one would have "gotten that one" either…………UNLESS of course, you lived in the south. ;) WE all would have known what he meant…I'm "preparing" to go. ;) Again…it's what makes the world interesting. It's NOT about religion. Sheesh! LOL

    JR

  66. Like a Dog Ellipsis « Literal-Minded said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 12:11 am

    [...] talk about me like a dog" remark. You can read what Language Log had to say about it here. It's a bit out of the news cycle by now, but Ben Zimmer's current "On [...]

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