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“A hit dog will holler”: Here’s What It Really Means

“A hit dog will holler”: Here’s What It Really Means

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If you were new to English, and I used the expression “to bite the bullet” without further explanation, you probably would have no idea what I’m talking about. After all, “biting a bullet” makes no real sense when you think about it.

However, if I gave you a little historical context and told you that this expression came from the military and the navy, you would start to understand what I said a little bit.

If I explained that the term originates from soldiers biting bullets to endure pain during battlefield surgeries without anesthesia, you’d fully grasp its meaning.

Similarly, the expression ‘a hit dog will holler’ also gains its resonance from contextual understanding and broader world knowledge.

With that said, now that we’ve bitten the bullet, let’s hear why a “hit dog” would holler.


What is the meaning of “a hit dog will holler”?

The meaning of “A hit dog will holler” is that those offended by a certain idea or statement will be the ones most likely to react defensively or even aggressively to it. The loudest objections often signal personal guilt or discomfort, suggesting the comment has struck a nerve.

For instance, an interesting story I read a while ago researching this piece goes as follows:

There was this radio announcer who would play radio records on his show. And, occasionally, he would say that he is dedicating the next song to whoever needs it before playing “Mind Your Own Business” by Hank Williams.

The funny thing is that every time he did this, people would approach him over the next few days, asking him why he had to embarrass them publicly.

If that isn’t an instance of a hit dog hollering, I don’t know what is.


What is a hit dog?

A ‘hit dog’ is someone who reacts defensively or aggressively to an accusation or statement, often revealing their own guilt or insecurities.

Calling someone “a hit dog” started at the end of the nineteenth century, sometime around the 1880s.

In fact, The Washington Post asserted that the first one to use the proverb, “a hit dog will holler,” was Samuel Porter Jones, who was a lawyer-turned pastor and preacher.

As a matter of fact, Jones was known to use a larger version of the proverb, which said, “throw a stone into a crowd of dogs, and the hit dog will holler.”

Hence, this is where the idea of “a hit dog” comes from. It’s the dog that got hit by the stone. And once you understand this context, it becomes even clearer where the expression derives its meaning.

“Throw a stone” can be interpreted as making an accusation or saying an inflammatory statement.

And the “hit dog” will be the one who feels that the accusation was directed at them or that the inflammatory statement was meant for them, both of which can be considered signs of a guilty conscience.

"A Hit Dog Will Holler" Expression Demystified


The evolution of the proverb “a hit dog will holler”

Over time, the proverb was shortened from “throw a stone into a crowd of dogs, and the hit dog will holler” to “a hit dog will holler.” This is not unusual when it comes to proverbs.

In fact, over history, several proverbs have been shortened, causing them to get misinterpreted by the general public. For instance, “blood is thicker than water” was originally “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”

Anyway, “a hit dog will holler” gained prominence in 2018 when it was used in the Florida gubernatorial election.

The story is that Democrat Andrew Gillum was going up against Republican Ron DeSantis.

Now, while Gillum was vying to be Florida’s first black governor, DeSantis had been accused on multiple occasions of having associations with racist organizations.

When this came up during one of their debates, and DeSantis was called out for his associations, he reacted emotionally and vehemently.

He started going on a tirade, trying to defend himself, but it came across as him floundering more than anything else. In response to this emotional defense, Gillum said, “ My grandmother used to say: a hit dog will holler.”

Basically, what Gillum is saying is that DeSantis’s emotional reply is proof of his guilt.

Naturally, you can imagine that it didn’t take long for Twitter and the media to pick up this story and spread it like wildfire.


The proverb “a hit dog will holler” in other languages

The idea of guilty people overreacting to statements and implicating themselves all the more is not new. It has been around for some time, as evidenced by the fact that other proverbs in different languages say the same thing.

For example, in German, a proverb goes, “der getroffene Hund bellt.” “Der Hund” is the dog, and “Der getroffene Hund” is the hit dog. And “bellt” means to bark, so the full proverb reads, “the hit dog barks.” It is more often used in plural form, though: “Getroffene Hunde bellen.”

In Arabic, specifically in colloquial Arabic like the one used in Egypt, there is a saying that goes, “whoever has a bump on their head will be the first ones to touch it.”

Again, the implication is that if a statement offends you and hurts because it hits where you already have “a bump on your head,” then you will most likely react and touch that “bump.”