But that's the same sister-in-law who refers to her two dogs as my baby daughter's "cousins". She takes no notice of me cringing when she does so. Or maybe she gets a thrill from it. I don't want to think about it too much. I do think of this bit from The Xenophobe's Guide to the English (and similar bits from most of the other books about the English on my shelf):
For while [the English] are not always very good at talking to each other, they excel in conversation with their animals. Although they are not often successful in forming tactile bonds with their children, they continually chuck the chins of their lap dogs and whisper sweet nothings into their hairy ears. (p. 23)People who feel that animals are fine--outdoors, in the jungle, not bothering me--had better be quiet about it, since:
If our pet takes against someone, even if we have no reason at all to dislike the person, we trust the animal's superior insight and become wary and suspicious. People who object to being jumped on, climbed over, kicked, scratched and generally mauled by English animals who are 'just being friendly' also clearly have something wrong with them. (Watching the English, p. 236)On that note, we turn to the following correspondence from British reader Bill:
I used the expression "dog's breakfast" in a comment on an American blog, and the bloke said he'd never heard it before. The day before, I saw some Americans misunderstanding the British meaning of a dog's basket - apparently they'd have said "dog's bed". I understand that Americans are reluctant to use "bitch" in its literal meaning. Are we separated even in woofer-related matters?All of my brothers and my good friends in the US have dogs. They also have full-time gainful employment. Meanwhile, in the UK I know people who would love to have a dog, but who feel that it would be cruel to leave a dog at home while they go to work and can't understand people who do that. I think we are separated especially in woofer-related matters.
So, on to Bill's phrases, and some more. I was surprised to find that I'd not mentioned (BrE) dog's breakfast before, since it was one of the non-translating metaphors/costumes at my Metaphorty party, and I wrote about those back here. But it seems I left out my sister-in-law's costume. Being a petite person (like all of Better Half's family), she was able to cut arm holes into an economy-size dried dog food bag (Baker's Complete, I believe it was) and call herself 'the dog's breakfast'. Dog's breakfast means 'a mess'. [Postscript, 12 Sept 2011: Mark Liberman at Language Log points out that this is originally AmE! See the 3rd comment on this post of his for those details.]
This is not to be confused, The Phrase Finder tells us, with (BrE) the dog's dinner, meaning 'dressed or displayed in an ostentatiously smart manner':
And then there are (BrE) the dog's bollocks, with bollocks being informal BrE for 'testicles' (= balls). On its own, bollocks can be used as roughly equivalent to (AmE) bullshit--i.e. a load of (AmE) garbage/(BrE) rubbish. But when they're the dog's bollocks, it means "as good as it could be, the best of its kind, the Rolls-Royce of its type" (Jeremy Paxman, The English, p. 236). So, human testicles = rubbish, refuse; canine testicles = the best thing in the world. See what I mean about priorities?Why a dog's breakfast is synonymous with mess or muddle and dog's dinner with smartness isn't at all clear. It appears that the two phrases were coined entirely independently of each other.'Dog's dinner' is first cited in ‘C. L. Anthony's play 'Touch Wood', 1934:"Why have you got those roses in your hair? You look like the dog's dinner."
Back to Bill's list, I'd not have thought of dog('s) basket as particularly BrE, but I searched for it on amazon.co.uk and amazon.com and found that the former shows dog beds (many, but not all, involving basket-y structures) and the American site shows baskets for carrying your pet on your bicycle--so perhaps there is a difference there. I'd have to use dog bed in AmE if there was no wicker involved, but I'd be happy to say basket if an actual basket was part of the structure.
And as far as bitch goes, I don't know anyone in either country who uses the word a lot in its literal meaning. Both of sis-in-law's dogs are female, but she refers to them as girls, not bitches. In my experience, bitch is used by those who breed dogs and those who hunt with them. And since I avoid both populations to the best of my ability (or at least avoid engaging them in animal talk), I haven't got a clear notion that Americans do use it less. On the contrary, bitch appears over 500 times on the American Kennel Club website, but only once on a document at Kennel Club UK and 16 times on the Crufts site--though since I don't know how those sites compare size-wise, it's not a very useful comparison.
Having revealed my lack of enthusiasm for dogs (at least as compared to people), I expect that I'll go down in many a reader's estimation. But they already liked dogs better than me, so I won't let it faze me. I've concentrated on the English here, with no claims about the rest of the British, but it should be noted that the Scottish have a famous monument to dog loyalty. Maybe that's just there to bring English tourists across the border, but I don't think so...