LINGUIST List 3.724

Fri 25 Sep 1992

Sum: *dog* as sexist language

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , *dog* as sexist language -- SUMMARY POSTING

Message 1: *dog* as sexist language -- SUMMARY POSTING

Date: 22 Sep 1992 10:22:42 -0600*dog* as sexist language -- SUMMARY POSTING
Subject: *dog* as sexist language -- SUMMARY POSTING

Everyone who responded, thank you!!! Your comments were
most informative and useful. I*ve attempted to render their
considerable range in my summary. Very sorry about the delay
in getting this summary posting out but here *tis. Any
inaccuracies are surely of my own doing.

This is a long email -- you might want to print it out.


In mid-summer, I posted a query to LINGUIST net regarding a
billboard in Salt Lake City, Utah. The billboard, erected by Gus
Paolos Chevrolet, depicted a Corvette and read as follows:

	**If your date*s a dog, get a vet**

In attempt to scope out whether this use of *dog* was indeed as
sexist as I perceived it to be, I queried the LINGUIST net for
whether the word *dog* when used with the meaning
*unattractive human* could be used equally either of males and
females or whether it was specified for one or the other gender.

The following summarizes the results of my query.


Following Bruce Nevin*s lead, I telephoned Merriam Webster
Dictionary and spoke with the Senior Editor, Steve Perrault. He
asserted as follows:

Merriam Webster -- Senior Editor

**I don*t find any case [after consulting over 100 citations]
where *dog* meaning unattractive person clearly refers to a man.
When it is referring to an unnattractive person, it is almost
invariably a woman. It is used of men as an insulting term, not to
imply that they are unattractive, but to imply they are losers, lazy
or unworthy in some way. *Dog* is a term of abuse for a person
but when it is used to mean unattractive -- based on the evidence
I have examined -- it is used specifically of women.** [Steve
Perrault, Senior Editor, Merriam Webster]

Movies, Books, Personal Anecdotes

That *dog* meaning *unattractive* is coded specifically as
*unattractive woman or girl* was manifest in a number of
different discourse arenas -- movies, books, and personal stories.

Peggy Maceachern put me onto a recent movie, **Dogfight**
with River Phoenix. The video jacket tells us that **the rules of
the dogfight were simple: Everyone puts in 50 bucks and the guy
with the ugliest *date* wins**. Equivalently, it later asserts that
**the guy who finds the most unattractive date wins**.
Introducing the characters, the video blurb identifies **Lili
Taylor [as] Rose, an *ugly duckling.**

The *dogs* here were exclusively female.

In Ghostbusters, Bill Murray refers to the levitating Segourney
Weaver (who is a dog of hell), **Ok. sheUs a dog.**

A philosopher friend, Chuck Johnson, told me of **The Long
Grey Line**, a book depicting life at West Point, in which the
same sort of contest transpired as in **Dogfight**. The cadets
held a contest such that the winner was the cadet with the ugliest
date -- the dates were all female.

Through personal knowledge, Christine Kamprath confirms this
kind of behavior as follows:

 **At West Point Military Academy, where I lived for four
years, they had weekly dances. For the first two years I was
there, there were no female cadets. But there was a women's
college just outside the academy gates, and the cadets would get
dates with those women and take them to the dances. The dances
were referred to as "walking my dog around the floor"; I believe
this was also extended to any date where walking with a woman
from that college was involved, e.g., what did you do last night?
walked the dog.**

A similar function was to be found at the University of
Massachusetts in the mid-60*s. David Johns comments that in
the 50s and 60s, *dog* **without any context meant "ugly
girl".** He recalled as follows: **In fact, when I was at the
University of Massachusetts in '64-'66 a fraternity was closed
down for having a "dog show" -- a party where all the brothers
brought ugly girls.** Though his intuition was that he wouldn*t
have been surprised to have heard *dog* used of unattractive


That *dog* means unattractive girl or woman was asserted by a
good number of folk (Klavans, Hearst, La Rocco, Maceachern,
Kac, Ervin Tripp, Lojbab, Barratt, Wachal, Metzler, Carrozza,
Brugman, Sutton, Lessard, Picone, and Brice) in terms such as
the following:

 **I have NEVER heard *dog applied to a man by someone
under the age of 50 or so. It invariably refers to a physically
unattractive woman.**

**I don*t remember ever hearingh it used to refer to a man.**

 **In my lexicon, *dog* in this sense is indeed gender-biased. It
means *unattractive female*, not *unattractive person.**

**I can*t think of a usage of *dog* meaning unattractive

**dog, in this instance is intended to refer specifically to

**I*d have a hard time constring the ad you describe as anything
but sexist.**

**Through many years as an observer of language, a student of
philology, and an editor, I have never heard the word *dog* used
in the way you mention to refer to a man. I am certain of

**As a speaker, I wouldn*t accept *dog* as referring to a man**

**I recently wrote a paper based on the slang used here at UCB
and *dog* definitely refers to woen, not men**

Additionally, two pieces of folkspeech from the U. C. Berkeley
Folklore Archive (c/o Department of Anthropology, Berkeley,
California 94720) corroborate, defining *dog* as follows:

**Dog* is used to describe an ugly girl.** -- 1974.

**A *dog* is one who is ugly, unfashionable ... (I expected her
to be real attractive; she was a real dog.** -- 1967.


Following the suggestion of Linda Coleman, I did a very
informal survey of people in a grocery store in Park City, Utah,
just up the road from Salt Lake City. I told them I was a linguist
doing research on how people interpret language utterances and
asked them if I could get their interpretation of a billboard in Salt
Lake. I described the billboard -- that it was erected by Gus
Paolo Chevrolet, that it pictured a Corvette and that above the
Corvette it read, **If your date*s a dog, get a vet.** I then asked
each person what it was talking about, what it meant.

I spoke with 13 people. Six men, in their 30s and 40s. 5 women
in their 30s and two girls, aged 13 and 15.

Two of the men standing together, laughed and replied, **It
means if you own a nice vehicle you won*t have a dog sitting
next to you.** I asked them what or who the dog was. One
replied, **what do you mean what*s the dog? It*s obvious.**
What is it, a golden retriever, I asked? **Of course not. It*s a

The clear concensus (4 adult women, 4 adult men), was that the
billboard was **sexist and degrading to women.** **The date is
a woman, definately.** One woman replied, **if your chic ain*t
kool, get a Corvette**. A man commented, **If you wanted a
more attractive date, drive a Vet** and he amplified that the date
is typically female.

One woman rather perperplexingly interpreted the billboard to
mean *if you have an old car take it to get fixed*.

Two of the men I approached (30s & 40s) although initially
responsive as I described myself as a linguist investigating how
people understand certain language utterances, became unwilling
to continue when they heard the substance of my inquiry. One
man refused to comment and another said **I won*t get
involved with this. It sounds like an activist thing. You are
VERY aggressive.** And off he strode.

Thus, out of of 11 adults, 2 men refused to respond. Out of the 9
responding, a near totality, 4 women and 4 men, assessed
**dog** as referring exclusively to women. One woman
proffered an interpretation of *date* as a broken down car.

Interestingly, the two teenaged girls I sampled interpreted the
date as **a guy**, suggesting that young females can interpret
**dog** gender neutrally, unlike older women and men.


The same type of usage held among junior high and high school
students in Chicago in the 70s. Thus, Laurel Smith Stvan

**When I was in junior high and high school (in the Chicago
suburbs in the 70s), dog, fox, and babe were all terms used to
categorize people by their looks (and therfore sex appeal)
and they were used by both sexes for members of the opposite
sex. In particular, they would be used in the following types of

What a fox! He's such a dog.

I probably heard these types of phrase slightly more from male
students than from female students, but the females who used
then were by no means proponents of unbiased language, they
were just using the current slang.**

The generational distinction suggested by the informal survey
and the 70*s Chicago High school data is echoed currently in the
patterns of teenaged speech in Southern Ontario English. Greg
Lessard reports the following usage among his 15 year old
daughter and her friends:

 **My 15 year old daughter, who tells me that among her friends
_dog_ is used by females to describe unattractive males, when
speaking to other females or to other males, and by males to
describe females, when speaking to other males or to females,
but that it is NOT used by males to describe not attractive males
when speaking to females, or by females to describe not
attractive females when speaking to males.**

So... just reflect my own understanding of Lessard*s interesting
description, a speaker can slander the opposite sex when
speaking to either a same or different gender hearer. But a
speaker will not slander a same sex person when speaking to a
member of the opposite gender.

The gender polarity here recalls another respondent observation
-- any assertion that *dog* in the ad is used exclusively of
women rests upon an unfortunate **heterosexual default


Data from University studies confirms both the established usage
[i.e. *dog* **when used to mean unattractive... is used
specifically of women (Steve Perrault, Merriam Webster)], and
what we may call the gender-equity usage [i.e. *dog* used to
mean either unattractive female or male] which appears to be
found among younger users (Lessard; Wheeler -- the informal
supermarket survey).

Colleen Brice conducted a study of the use of animal metaphors
as used by Purdue undergraduates. The questionnaire she
diseminated to 75 female and 75 male students was concerned
with animal metaphors of the type 'X is a Y'--it asked informants
to answer several about 24 animal names (one of which, of
course, was 'dog').

In relevant part, she found that **because a majority of the males
use 'dog' to refer exclusively to females, and a majority said it is
used to mean 'ugly', it seems safe to say that most males perceive
'dog' as a pejorative term used primarily for females.** With
control for polysemy, it would be possible to determine whether
the males outside the majority use *dog* to mean, more
generally, unattractive human.

[Stephen Spackman*s experience suggests that this general
meaning is indeed in use: **On reflection I've definitely heard
the word "dog" used for an ugly person of the gender of
preference in three of the four cases: men of women, women of
men and women of women (my sample size is too small for the
MM case...)**.]

Further, Brice found that men and women use *dog* differently:

**46% of the informants (females and males combined)
said they use 'dog' to refer to both sexes, and 38.7% said they use
'dog' to refer to females only. A mere 4% said they use it for
males only.**

**However, there is a significant difference in female and male
informants' asignment of referent to 'dog'. 61.3% of the female
informants said they use 'dog' for both sexes--this percentage is
double the percentage of males who use 'dog' for both sexes
(30.7%). On the other hand, 57.3% of the males who
participated in the survey claimed they use 'dog' to refer to
females. Only 20% of the female informants said they use 'dog'
for females only. So, it seems 'dog' is used differently by males
and females.**

While these findings speak to the use of the lexeme, *dog*,
rather than the use of the lexeme IN A GIVEN SENSE, they
nonetheless suggest differential use between men and women.

dictionary entries and respondent suggestions -- strictly pre-

As brought out in Brice*s study as well as in many responses,
*dog* is clearly polysemous. The range of possible meanings
proffered is suggested by a summary of the various dictionary
treatment respondents wrote about. Thus, *dog* is defined
variously as follows:

Hugh Rawson. 'Wicked Words' .

 1. a failure of any sort ('that movie was a dog').
 2. an ugly person, often a woman. (note that the term 'mutt'
 is referenced here. the definition listed there is 'a woman,
 especially a homely one). [***Joshua Simons***]

Webster's 9th New Collegiate, :

 2a: a worthless person
 b: FELLOW, CHAP <a lazy ~> <you lucky ~>
 9: one inferior of its kind: as
 a: an investment (as a stock or bond) not worth its price
 b: a slow-moving or undesirable piece of merchandise
 10: an unattractive girl or woman

Bruce Nevin observes and interestingly comments as follows:

"10 above turns up as 10g in W3I, marked as slang, with the
additional "sometimes: prostitute." ... It also seems clear that
sense 10 devloped from sense 9, and it may be strongly argued
that sense 10 is jargon of a male-dominated mercantile

American Heritage, 2nd college ed:
 An uninteresting, unattractive, or unresponsive person.
 A contemptible wretched fellow.

Scribner-Bantam English Dictionary:
 Contemptible fellow.
 Extremely ugly woman. [***Peggy Maceachern***]

Wentworth and Flexner
 11. A disreputable or untrustworthy man, especially in sexual
or social matters; a cad.
 12. An ugly, unrefined, or sexually disreputable girl or
woman; a boring girl or young woman who does not have the
compensation of beauty.
 6. Something inferior; something disliked or lacking in
appeal....... [***J.A. Given***]

See also,

 (see chapter on sexism)
 SLANG, Harper & Row, 1986
Pam Munro, Slang U [***Sutton***]
Richard A. Spears, SLANG AND EUPHEMISM, Jonathan
 David, 1981.
Hugh Rawson, WICKED WORDS, Crown, 1989. [***Bob
Wiese 1983. Anaphora by pronoun. LINGUISTICS 21: 392.

The following quickly summarizes the dictionary definitions as
well as those suggested by respondents:

1. Of non-humans:
Failure of any sort, an inferior one of its kind, something
undesirable or lacking in appeal contemptable (used of cars,
computers, software, etc)

2. Of human males:
(a) a disreputable wretched man esp. one who is lazy, a loser,
or unworthy.
(b) of the behavior of abusive/drunken/cheating men (That just
be the dog in him. 	Alabama. Mike Picone]
(c) also *dirty dog*, *handsome dog* , *sly dog* = rogue

3. Of human females:
An unattractive girl or woman. an ugly, unrefined or socially
disreputable girl or woman; a boring girl or young woman who
does not have the compensation of beauty.

4. Of humans, general:
(a) An ugly person of the gender of preference (most clearly
attested among teenagers and people in their early 20s)
(b) An ugly person (regardless of gender of prefrence).
Note: reading 4 is in less frequent usage than reading 3.


Post-script. Gus Paolos Chevrolet took the offending billboard
down and erected the another in its place: Driving a shiny
Corvette is an *obviously female* poodle with her passenger, an
*obviously male* bull-dog. The slogan reads **Every dog has
its day**.

Thanks again for all the responses!


Rebecca S. Wheeler
Logan, Utah
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue