If you look up English idioms involving dogs, there are enough of them to fit a wide range of situations.

In Aesop’s fable, for example, there is the “dog in the manger.” This canine decides to lie down in the box used for hay, and barks away at the cow trying to access it for his meal. The idiom then refers to a spoiler who prevents another from rightfully enjoying something that the snarly one does not need, or can even take pleasure in. What is the frequency of such a churlish attitude?

Can, for instance, something already in use and providing benefit to millions be simply snatched away by a dog in the manger, just to be rendered useless — just because this snarler enjoys seeing others suffer? Of course. It happens in real life.

Here are more dog phrases to think about.

Contestants for supremacy in a ferocious contest are in a “dog fight.” Those cast away to limbo from once powerful perches are “in the dog house.” And the one running the show in an organization is the “top dog.” (He may even have canine features and a dog hairdo.)

What about the “underdog”? The word is traced to the 19th century referring to the beaten contestant in a gamblers’ dog fight. The prefix “under” refers to the weaker contestant which may surrender even before the fight, rolling over on its back, and assuming an inferior position with the stronger dog standing over him. The weaker dog then is literally under the “top dog.” (There is no “over dog” in English usage, except perhaps to indicate certain sleeping positions found in the Kama Sutra.)

Going by etymology, the underdog is at a disadvantage, sometimes, waving the white flag even before the bell rings. An underdog also refers to an unsuccessful person with a string of defeats behind him. Going by this characterization, the underdog is a loser. The tag attaches to one who fails in a contest where reason and moderation succumb to brute force.

There seems to be little upside for the underdog. Supporters can abandon him and move to the winner’s table. The underdog is often consigned to last week’s news, as victors gloat and announce their next targets — there is no rest for the wicked.

So, why do we as a people root for the underdog?

Here is a case of linguistic misunderstanding. There is another dimension to the underdog which sheds light on its erratic usage. An underdog is also one bullied unjustly and subjected to unfair treatment — a victim of persecution, with all the odds stacked against him. Still, this underdog persistently fights on to the discomfort of his tormentors. He eventually attracts sympathy and support, maybe from other underdogs too. After a while, a whole nation may feel like underdogs.

In the corporate world, underdogs are not popular. In the occasional turf wars that beset companies where one faction is pitted against another with perhaps a third waiting in the wings for the winner, the underdog is allied with the weaker camp and most likely headed for the doghouse.

It is the top dog (canis dominantis) that gets the power. One look from him, or the raising of a paw (Sir, can I kiss it now?) is enough for lesser dogs to assume the supine position.

As for spectators in dog fights, the bystander is sometimes asked — “do you have a dog in this fight”? The question checks whether one has a stake, whether financial or emotional, in the outcome of a particular contest. Often, the cautious observer avoids getting involved by stating that he will just “let sleeping dogs lie.” This proclaimed indifference to the outcome is meant to avoid the attention of the alpha dog whose snarl can unhinge a not-so-innocent bystander.

Anyway, power is transitory. Today’s top dog whose growl echoes through the corridors of power can tomorrow be a whipped dog whose text messages are ignored. The confident snarl of the dog, once at the top, turns into the whimpering of a lost puppy looking for the next meal.

The fallen Mark Anthony (in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar) famously struck back at the assassins of Caesar in the senate to enjoin his fellow underdogs to “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.”

Maybe, a beaten pup takes comfort in the belief that… every dog has his day.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda