meaning and origin of the phrase ‘to see a man about a dog’

Published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) of 15th October 1925, the following cartoon puns on the phrase to see a man about a dog, which is used figuratively by the wife, but literally by the husband:

ALIBI, BETTER THAN EVER

to see a man about a dog - Brooklyn Daily Eagle - 15 Oct. 1925

Wife (sarcastically to husband, who is late again)—Been to see a man about a dog, I suppose?
Husband—Absolutely right. That confounded tyke of yours has bitten the postman.

 

 

The phrase to see a man about a dog is used euphemistically as a vague excuse for leaving to keep an undisclosed appointment, or, now frequently, to go to the toilet.

It is first recorded in On Falling In and Out of Love, published in The Anti-Teapot Review. A Magazine of Politics, Literature, and Art (London) of 15th November 1865—here, the husband uses the phrase as an excuse to absent himself from the marital home:

They [= men] “fall in love” (to use the language of sensation novelists) with young girls who have nothing to recommend them except beauty, wealth, or accomplishments. The beauty must fade in the course of years; the wealth may turn out to be nothing more or less than “genteel poverty;” and the accomplishments are simply those of a boarding-school miss, acquired at the expense of anxious parents for a certain purpose, and used in the end as an unfailing bait by the maternal fishers of men.
We would suggest that there must be something very rotten in our present ideas of matrimony, if men allow themselves to be thus gulled by the charms (temporary only) of daughters who have no other recommendations than those we have enumerated—viz., beauty, wealth, or accomplishments. If a man be fool enough to “fall in love” with either of these “baits,” so much the worse for the man; he, and his wife too (if he be unfortunate enough to obtain one), will come, in the course of years, to acknowledge that the hasty “love” of “sweet seventeen” is no guarantee whatever for a life of true happiness and contentment. The wife of 35 will ask how it is that she is no longer the queen she was years ago, when there were lots of suitors ready to “win” her (as she thought) at any price. The husband will meekly excuse himself from offering an explanation; feel himself henpecked; and twice a week, at least, will find that he has to absent himself by going to London, to “see a man about a dog,” or on some other important business.

The second-earliest recorded instance of the phrase is from The Flying Scud; or, a Four-Legged Fortune (1866), by the Irish actor and playwright Dion Boucicault (Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot – 1820/22-1890)—here, the context clearly shows that the speaker merely uses the phrase to escape from an awkward predicament that arises unexpectedly:

– Quail: I have just heard that the bill I discounted for you bearing Lord Woodbie’s name, is a forgery. I give you twelve hours to find the money, and provide for it.
– Mo: [Looking at watch] Excuse me, Mr. Quail, I can’t stop; I’ve got to see a man about a dog. I forgot all about it till just now.

In early use, to see a man about a dog often meant to go to a publican’s for an alcoholic drink (it would be tempting, but perhaps imprudent, to see an allusion to hair of the dog, i.e. to an alcoholic drink taken to cure a hangover); here are two examples:

– This early American-English use is from an account of the ceremony of the count of the electoral vote at the Capitol, in Washington, D.C., published in The Indianapolis News (Indianapolis, Indiana) of Friday 2nd February 1877:

3 p.m.—It has been a long time between drinks, and members of the joint convention quietly slip out in mobs of from two to six, to see a man about a dog over at Sanderson’s.

– This early British-English use is from an article about the preview of an exhibition at the Fine Art Institute, in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, published in the Glasgow Evening News (Glasgow, Lanarkshire) of Saturday 2nd February 1889:

One third of the crowd, on a modest estimate, got a vague idea of what the pictures were like; another third were charmed, or otherwise, with the cloth and cut of their sisters’ gowns; and the remainder—well, they were principally of the male sex, and they went out occasionally “to see a man about a dog,” for there was not a glass of claret nor a cracknel on the premises.

The phrase is also used specifically as an excuse for leaving to meet a lover. In Tell me about the man you saw about a dog, published in the Springfield News-Leader (Springfield, Missouri) of 26th July 1998, Wayne Holmes recalls that in 1943, he overheard his friend Martin making a phone call:

I could make out an animated quality of his voice, strikingly like what I’d overheard when Dad turned on the charm as he talked to women and girls out of Mama’s sight and hearing.
[…]
Martin told me he was going to Mount Vernon, the county seat. “You’re welcome to come along,” he said, “but after we go to the exchange, I’ve got to see a man about a dog.”
Knowing that when someone said he had to go see a man about a dog he meant he had private business to attend to, I was instantly intrigued. What private business could Martin have in Mount Vernon?
[…]
Some 40 years later when Ernestine [= Martin’s wife] was dead […], I quizzed him about that long-ago unexplained episode. “Who was that man you went to see in the beer joint in Mount Vernon the summer of 1943?” I teasingly asked.
“Man? Who said it was a man?”
“You did. You told me you had to go see a man about a dog.”
“Well, I might have said that,” he said, “but you know that’s just a saying.”
“I know that now, but I didn’t know it then,” I lied. “Do you mean to say you weren’t talking to a man that day?”
“That’s right.”
“Who was it?”
“Don’t you know?”
“Maybe. Was it Hilda?”
“Yes. How’d you know?”
“Call it a good guess.”

Dave Yoder mentioned the use of the phrase as an excuse for leaving to go to the toilet to urinate in Catch latest in American Wizzery, published in the Sioux City Journal (Sioux City, Iowa) of 25th September 2002:

There once was a fisherman who had a problem. There he was in the middle of a stream in his waders, working the fish like a ringmaster. Suddenly the five cups of coffee he drank on the way up demanded an immediate exit.
He didn’t want to walk to the bank to relieve himself thus depriving himself of valuable fishing time. So he invented a device that combines a wearable catheter hooked by a tube to a collection bag that lets you take care of business while you take care of your business.
There will be nothing but that glazed-over look in your eyes to let people know why you stopped casting. No more announcements (“I gotta see a man about a dog” “Just going to the Little Boy’s room”).

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