Some expressions are so esoteric that without explanation, they make little sense.
On the one hand, some expressions could be difficult to understand because their meanings are derived from historical context rather than just from the words themselves.
For instance, the expression “to bite the bullet” would be hard to understand on its own.
If you were new to English, and I used the expression “to bite the bullet” without providing any 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 make sense of what I said a little bit.
Then, if I were to tell you that this expression comes from the fact that, during war, some soldiers had to undergo painful medical operations, and to cope with the pain of these operations, especially without the use of an anesthetic on the battlefield, these patients had to put a bullet between their teeth and bite on it, you would probably understand the expression one hundred percent.
You’d understand that “biting the bullet” means doing something that you may not want to do yet that is necessary all the same.
On the other hand, some expressions are difficult to decipher because they use words or terms that are foreign to you. For instance, today’s expression, “a hit dog will holler,” will make no sense to you unless you know what a hit dog is.
What does “a hit dog will holler” mean?
“A hit dog will holler” refers to the idea that people offended by a certain idea or statement will be the ones most likely to react defensively or even aggressively to it. In fact, in some cases, if someone makes an accusation, the individual who reacts most vehemently is likely the most guilty of said accusation. In other words, their reaction can be construed as an admission of guilt.
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, every once in a while, 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 start approaching him over the next few days, asking him why he had to embarrass them publicly like that.
If that isn’t an instance of a hit dog hollering, I don’t know what is.
What does a “hit dog” mean?
Calling someone “a hit dog” started back 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 as signs of a guilty conscience.
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 simply “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” really 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 in the middle of one of their debates, and when 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 in other languages
The idea of guilty people overreacting to statements and implicating themselves all the more is not a new one. It has been around for some time as is evidenced by the fact that other proverbs in different languages say the same thing.
For example, in German, there is a proverb that 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.”
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.”
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.