22 February 2018

"Dog's breakfast" explained

Last weekend at a local auction the auctioneer started to enumerate the contents of a lot, then stopped and said it was a real "dog's breakfast."  It's a British phrase (he was Canadian), and the meaning was obvious, but I couldn't parse out the derivation.  I found this in a 25-year-old New York Times On Language column:
"A dog's breakfast is any kind of smorgasbord prepared, in haste or at random, from life's castoffs... The slang lexicographer Eric Partridge cited Glasgow circa 1934 as its place and time of origin, though he noted that Australians also used the phrase with the same meaning as "confusion, mess, turmoil."

About the same time, a dog's dinner appeared with a quite different sense. "Why have you got those roses in your hair?" asked a character in "Touch Wood," a 1934 novel by C. L. Anthony. "You look like the dog's dinner ." This expression was defined by the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement as "dressed or arranged in an ostentatiously smart or flashy manner," probably derived from the 1871 usage "to put on the dog ." 
The derivation summarized:  "Although the origin isn’t exactly known, it alludes to the fact that if what you don’t succeed at what you are cooking, then the results are only fit for a dog... It is suggested that this dates from a time before canned dog food when a pup’s breakfast would have consisted of dinner leftovers from the night before; hence, “a mess.”

And then there's "dog's bollocks," used to connote absolute excellence.

Cartoon credit here.


  1. I'm sort of surprised. I've long heard and used the phrase dog's dinner to mean a real messed up mixup. That is, a pejorative. Indeed I heard it from at least one australian that way too. What I like about Dog's Dinner is the alliteration makes it roll of the tongue and making an easy part of speech to recall at will. I've never heard it used as a compliment.

  2. That prompted me to take a glance at the OED and that led me to "dog's cods", which the dictionary says is "after post-classical Latin testiculus canis", and is a rare term for "any of various European orchids".
    A currently used synonym is "dogstones", "Any of various British orchids; (also) the rounded tubers of these plants, formerly used medicinally (rare)".
    Apparently the tubers are a source of the starch known as salep.
    I could spend a dog's age looking into this.

  3. my aunt would say that some food came out so bad, even the dog wouldn't eat it.


  4. Similar to rhyming slang, 'dog's bollocks' is usually shortened to 'the dogs'.

    Also evolved into 'the 'nads', short for 'gonads'.

    Source - I have relatives from Essex.

  5. Of course, there's the spin-off of "dog's bollocks" that apparently showed up in the 90s (but I learned via Terry Pratchett) -- the "mutt's nuts."

  6. Echoing Charlie up there - I've only ever heard the term 'dog's dinner' used here in the UK to mean that someone's made a mess of something as in "You've made a right dog's dinner of this!"


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