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A sad labrador laments his dog's life. (Chalabala/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
A sad labrador laments his dog's life. (Chalabala/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Warren Clements: Word Play

A dog's life, 2.0 Add to ...

Today’s column goes to the dogs, and the nights, and the multiplujillions.

A reader named Kevin, while enjoying the online vocabulary-building feature A Word a Day (wordsmith.org), was surprised to see the expression “it’s a dog’s life” included in a list of terms indicating hardship and unpleasantness. “I always thought it meant an easy life of free food and sleeping on pillows all day,” he wrote. “An informal survey of my friends revealed they had the same understanding.”

Previous Word Play columns by Warren Clements

This is not surprising, since, as he also notes, the life of today’s pet dog is infinitely cushier than that of its ancestor. Wordsmith Christine Ammer says the expression “a dog’s life” was first recorded in a manuscript in the 1500s, when dogs were regularly kicked and ill fed. They were forever being worked into phrases – sick as a dog, die like a dog – that reflected their sorry lot.

The latter expression was found in the writings of John Rastell as far back as 1529: “He lyved lyke a lyon and dyed lyke a dogge.” A dog might have its day – that is, get the better of its mean master – but the day was distant.

Kevin may draw some comfort from this observation about “a dog’s life” by Julia Cresswell in The Penguin Dictionary of Clichés. “Dogs’ lives have become so much better in the 20th century that the term is now often used ironically, to describe a life of comfort.” Perhaps the dog is finally having its day.

John Starr has been reading Jacqueline Winspear’s novel Among the Mad, set in England in the early 1930s. Winspear “makes reference to ‘Old Year Night’ instead of New Year’s Eve,” Starr writes. “I have never heard that term before, and am wondering where it came from and whether it is still in use, and where.”

This focus on ringing out the old rather than ringing in the new is tough to pin down, but the variants have been around for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary traces “Old-year end” to 1648, “Auld Year’s day” to 1885 and “Old Year-morning” to 1869 (in R.D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone).

The Dictionary of American Regional English finds U.S. citations dating back to 1897, when Ruth McEnery Stuart wrote her tales of the Arkansas town of Simpkinsville. “They got him to come to the old-year party one year,” she wrote, “jest for the fun of it.” The dictionary records uses in the 1960s of the phrases Old Year’s Eve, Old Year’s Evening and Old Year’s Night, by people in Arkansas, Washington, Missouri and especially Michigan.

For that matter, The Dictionary of Newfoundland English records the collection of this sentence in Newfoundland in 1962: “It took place from Christmas to old year.”

As for whether such expressions are still in use, one may turn to the South African newspaper Sunday World, which wrote in October of 2010 that fireworks might be set off on “Old Year’s Eve between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. on New Year’s Day.” In the same month, England’s Daily Express wrote of crowds in Amsterdam “enjoying the atmosphere of what the Dutch call ‘ Oudejaarsavond’ or ‘Old Year’s Eve.’ ”

After a recent column mentioned Scrooge McDuck in a discussion of millions and zillions, Ian G. Masters kindly passed along a scanned copy of a page from a 1956 comic book about the feathered Disney miser. For the record, the gauge that measures the coins and bills in Uncle Scrooge’s vault puts their depth at 99 feet. Scrooge himself says he has “three cubic acres of money, uncountable oil wells, gold mines, railroads, factories, and fish houses.” (Yes, he uses the Oxford comma.)

When he asks his accountant for the total value of his holdings, the accountant replies that it is “one multiplujillion, nine obsquatumatillion, six hundred and twenty-three dollars and sixty-two cents.” This should be the new definition of ease: It’s a duck’s life.

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