cartoon from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York)
15th October 1925:
ALIBI, BETTER THAN EVER
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:
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.
In the following from The Sheffield Daily Telegraph (Sheffield, Yorkshire) of 20th October 1856, the thief uses as an excuse a formulation very similar to the phrase, which—perhaps—indicates that the phrase originally alluded to leaving to watch dogfighting, a form of blood sport outlawed in England by the Humane Act of 1835:
William Fox, 23, saw-handle maker, Lee-croft, was charged with breaking into the warehouse of Mr. Hall, brass founder, &c., Lee-croft. The prisoner was found near Mr. Hall’s premises at an early hour that morning by a watchman. The latter inquired was he was doing there, to which the prisoner rejoined that he lived at the top of the yard. The watchman said, “Come, I’ll see you home then;” but when they reached the place indicated, the prisoner said, “I don’t live here; I only want to see a man about a dog fight.” They returned, and then the watchman saw that Mr. Hall’s warehouse windows were open. Mr. Hall was called up; the place was examined, and outside were found a box of nails, some models for brass casting, &c., all of which the prisoner had got possession of by putting his hand through the window, several squares of which he had broken to accomplish his purpose.—Mr. A. Smith said the prisoner was a regular bred thief; a curse to society, and a dangerous man whom they should have to get rid of.—Remanded to Monday (this day).
It is often said—but without contemporary evidence—that to see a man about a dog was used as a euphemism for to get liquor in the USA during the Prohibition (i.e. the period from 1920 to 1933 when the manufacture, sale and transport of alcohol for consumption were forbidden under the Volstead Act of 1919). I have searched in vain for instances of this American usage from that period, but I have found the phrase already used in this sense much earlier in the United Kingdom. For instance, on 15th December 1891, The Southern Echo and Bournemouth Telegraph (Southampton, Hampshire) published an article about “the theatreophone”,
simply a conjunction of the telephone and the penny-in-the-slot principle. You put a certain piece of money in the slot, place an instrument to your ear, and, for so long as the monetary payment will allow, you hear the performance at some theatre as comfortably as though you were seated in the stalls. […] The theatreophone takes no account of that weakness of human nature—going into the bar “to see a man about a dog.”
Likewise, The Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette (Greenock, Scotland) of 17th May 1894 had:
The liquor-bars of two Edinburgh theatres were closed last night, and as a consequence the person who wanted to see “a man about a dog” had to go outside the building and round the corner before he could meet his friend.
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?”
“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”).