In British English, both dog’s breakfast and dog’s dinner are used figuratively to denote a confused mess.
This usage alludes to the jumbled nature of a dog’s meal, as is clear in the following passage from Scarlet and Hyssop: A novel (New York, 1902), by the English author Edward Frederic Benson (1867-1940):
“Just look: there we have a Gothic façade, followed by a very plain English erection which reminds me of beef and beer and Sunday. A little further down you will observe a kind of kiosk, and after that the front of the Erechteum and something from the slums of Nürnberg. If one could look round the corner, we would see a rustic cottage, a bit of Versailles, a slice of Buckingham Palace sa pièce de résistance, and some Pompeian frescoes by way of a savoury. There’s richness for you.”
“Scraps only, scraps from other places. It always reminds me of a dog’s dinner,” said Lady Alston; “and all of us who live here are like scraps for a dog’s dinner, too. Bits of things, remnants, a jumble sale, with everything priced over its proper value.”
In early use, dog’s breakfast appeared in similes. The earliest occurrence that I have found is from the review of a comedy drama entitled Retiring, published in The Referee (London, England) of Sunday 24th November 1878:
There is enough raw material for fourteen comedies crammed into its three acts, and the good things are flung together in a heap like a dog’s breakfast.
The second-earliest instance of like a dog’s breakfast that I have found is from John O’Groat Journal (Wick, Caithness, Scotland) of Tuesday 27th May 1890:
More about the Golspie “Ladies.”
The stranger has been taking a few notes, and now gives a sample of their gossip.
Our experience, and that of my travelling chum’s, of the Golspie ladies, as experienced a fortnight ago, has given them food for gossip during that period, and as we dare not attempt to chronicle their sayings in proper narrative, we will give them as nearly as possible in consecutive form, mixy-maxy like a dog’s breakfast, fit reading for the curious.
The earliest metaphorical use of dog’s breakfast that I have found is from The Referee (London, England) of Sunday 16 December 1900:
There are two methods of making business which we are all familiar with. One is keeping just the article that people want. The other is
Dressing the Window
so attractively that the desire to possess what they do not want is aroused in the passers-by. The streets of London this week present an admirable example of the latter plan. In the art of “dressing the window” for our home retail trade we have of late years made excellent progress. Many of the shop windows not only at the West End, but in the suburbs, are to-day arranged with an eye to artistic effect. The proprietors no longer fill their windows on the principle of the “dog’s breakfast”—everything thrown together in a heap.
There is a good deal more in window-dressing than might be supposed. John Bull has learnt the lesson for his home trade; he must learn it for his foreign. He must give his pretty things a chance. He must bring his magnificent manufactures before the world in an attractive form. He must tempt people into his shop, and when they are there he must be brisk, attentive, and politely pushful.
The Press was the first to learn the art of window-dressing in this country. We learnt it from the Americans. The American newspaper editor dressed his window with crosslines and headlines, and invented a dozen clever little methods of exciting and rivetting attention. The success of the modern newspaper lies in its window-dressing. The old, ugly “dog’s breakfast” heaped-up newspaper is dead.
In a letter published in John O’Groat Journal (Wick, Caithness, Scotland) of Friday 8th March 1901, Trooper J. Bruce, one of Lord Lovat’s Scouts1, likened Maconochie army rations2 to dog’s breakfast:
2nd February, 1901.
Before leaving camp we get a tin of Macconnachie’s army rations, and on that you must subsist till you return at night. Our Government are very generous indeed. Macconnachie’s rations are a sort of a dog’s breakfast affair, but then you must understand a soldier is supposed to eat anything.
1 The Lovat Scouts were a Scottish Highland regiment founded and commanded by Simon Joseph Fraser (1871-1933), 14th Lord Lovat, during the Second Boer War.
2 See origin of ‘Maconochie’ (tinned stew).
The following is from Chapter VIII of Barney Bodkin’s Behaviour, by Lieutenant-Colonel Lynam, published in The Weekly Freeman and Irish Agriculturist (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Saturday 20th December 1884—the narrator uses the derogatory term dog’s dinner in reference to the contents of the plate, which seems in contradiction with the good opinion that the woman has of herself as a wife:
She collected on a plate for her husband’s dinner the cabbage and scraps of meat which were left uneaten on her own, Norah’s, and Barney’s plates, adding thereto the back of the turkey and its black claws, which in country places, we suppose for ornament, are sent to table. This dog’s dinner sort of plate Biddy placed on the fender to keep it hot, sighing as she did so, to intimate to herself and to her son and sister-in-law, how good a wife she was to the man whose constant and earnest attention to business was alone maintaining the house in affluence and comfort.
The meaning of dog’s dinner is obscure in the following from The Evening Citizen (Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland) of Monday 9th May 1892:
The Duke of Westminster telegraphs to the Press Association:—“Orme better to-day. No return of unfavourable symptoms.” […] There are individuals who have been asking, “Who is this Mr. Orme?” […] An elderly lady, of the old Scotch type, is alleged to have put the question the other day, and, on being informed that Mr. Orme was a racehorse, held up her hands in amazement, and exclaimed—not exactly in the words of the crooked Richard—“A horse!3 Dear me! it’s only a dog’s dinner at the best o’t, suppose it was worth fifty thousand.” Certainly this cannot be called a cogent argument; for “Imperial Cæsar, dead and turned to clay, may stop a hole to keep the wind away.”4
3 This alludes to “A horse, a horse, my kingdome for a horse” in The Tragedy of King Richard the third (first published in 1597), by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
4 This is a quotation from another Shakespearean play, The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke:
(Quarto 1, 1603)
Why might not imagination worke, as thus of
Alexander, Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander
became earth, of earth we make clay, and Alexander being
but clay, why might not time bring to passe, that he might
stoppe the boung hole of a beere barrell?
Imperious Caesar dead and turnd to clay,
Might stoppe a hole, to keepe the winde away.
On Saturday 17th December 1927, the West Middlesex Gazette (Ealing and Southall, Middlesex, England) gave an account of the address on “The Art of Window Display” that Mr. P. S. Trott, the display manager of Messrs. Wolsey, Ltd., of Leicester, made to the members of the Ealing Chamber of Commerce—Trott specified that dog’s dinner was a “vulgar term”:
Many a shop window presents a spectacle only of chaos. It is a conglommeration [sic], or, in the vulgar term, a dog’s dinner.
DOG’S DINNER WITH REFERENCE TO HOW A PERSON IS DRESSED
The term dog’s dinner came to be used in reference to an outfit made of items very different from one another, as in this account of a fancy-dress dance, published in the Sevenoaks Chronicle, Westerham Courier and Kentish Advertiser (Sevenoaks, Kent, England) of Friday 30th April 1920:
Among the fancy costumes the following were the most noteworthy:—[…] Mrs. O. Jeffreys, Gipsy Fortune Teller; Mrs. Parson, A Dog’s Dinner (made up of pieces); [&c.].
Arthur Robinson Wright (1862-1932), President of the Folklore Society, used the phrase like a dog’s dinner in reference to an outfit made of disparate elements in his Presidential Address: The Folklore of the Past and Present, published in Folk-Lore: A Quarterly Review of Myth, Tradition, Institution, & Custom (London – Vol. 38, No. 1, 31st March 1927):
In short, to misapply a folk saying about a woman dressed in a certain way, it is “like a dog’s dinner,—a little bit of all sorts.”
In the Yorkshire Evening Post (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) of Saturday 4th March 1933, the Rev. H. G. Wilks, Vicar of Upperthong, told how he once had to pass himself off as a palmist during a church fete—because he ended up in a mock-oriental costume made of disparate elements, he used the adjective Arabian within like a dog’s dinner:
Garbed in the parish room curtain, turbaned by a few church collection bags hastily sewn together, messed-up to the eyebrows by good English soot, I was all dressed up and somewhere to go.
The theatrical transformation seemed all right: I looked like an Arabian dog’s dinner.
The phrase like a, or like the, dog’s dinner came to be used ironically of a person, usually of a woman, over-elaborately or ostentatiously dressed—synonym: like a Christmas tree.
This is probably the case in the following from McIntyre’s New York Day by Day, by Oscar Odd ‘O. O.’ McIntyre (1884-1938), published in many U.S. newspapers in October 1933—for example in The Waco News-Tribune (Waco, Texas) of Monday 9th October 1933:
On a bus top at a Fifty-seventh street traffic halt a youth from the sidewalk called to a young cigarette-smoking lady at the rail: “What you doing sitting there all dressed up like a dog’s dinner?”
The phrase is clearly disparaging in this passage from Touch Wood: A Play in Three Acts (London, 1934), by ‘C. L. Anthony’—pen name of the English novelist and playwright Dorothy Gladys ‘Dodie’ Smith (1896-1990):
Edward : You had too jolly much to drink.
Mab : Liar.
Edward : Why have you got those roses in your hair? You look like the dog’s dinner.
Robin : I think she looks charming. (To Sylvia) I remember you wearing them in your hair once.
The British author James Curtis (born Geoffrey Basil Maiden – 1907-77) used the phrase in The Gilt Kid (Jonathan Cape – London, 1936), a novel set in London, particularly in the underworld of Soho—the narrator notices a woman in a fashionable restaurant:
She was all flashed up good and the geezer that was with her was dolled up like a dog’s dinner with a white tie and all. It must be kind of hard to tie one of those stranglers without blacking it all up.
Edward D. Dickinson also used the phrase about a man in this passage from Meet My Mother, a short story published in the San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California, USA) of Sunday 16th May 1937:
“And that,” he complained, “is just how it always happens. You do physical jerks until you’re red in the face; you learn to ride, and to fence; you practice ‘expressions’ in front of the mirror for hours, and dress yourself up like a dog’s dinner, and what happens? Nothing.”
Published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Monday 29th January 1940, this cartoon depicts a young woman literally “dressed up like a dog’s dinner”, i.e. with only dog’s biscuits covering her breasts and a bone covering her genitals:
“She was all dressed up like a dog’s dinner.”
Miss L. Heard, of 41-42, Duncan-buildings, Verulam-street, Gray’s Inn-road, Holborn, E.C.1, was the first reader to send this suggestion.
In this passage from Jarge’s Diary, published in The Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser (Trowbridge, Wiltshire) of Saturday 12th June 1943, the author describes an ostentatiously dressed woman named “Missus Tooze”:
Dun up like a dog’s dinner, she wer, an’ stink o’ prevumes anuff ta suffykate a ded man.
In the column Pilgrim Papers, published in the Manchester Evening News (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Monday 15th January 1945, the phrase refers to “a very glamorous” girl who has “obviously taken a great deal of trouble to get that way”:
I was fortunate enough to have a Cockney batman in the army. Had he seen the girl on the bus I feel sure he would have said “Blimey, sir, she’s done up like a dog’s dinner.”
Though a Cockney myself I have never been able to see why the phrase should mean “dressed up to the nines” or “dressed to kill.” But I discover now that I don’t know the origin of these two, either, so let us say the girl on the bus was a very glamorous creature.
Had Mr. Sam Goldwyn been enjoying that Manchester night he would certainly have thought, at first glance, that he had made another “discovery.” She was blonde and beautiful, and had obviously taken a great deal of trouble to get that way.
‘Lewes Rouser’ used the phrase in his column County Town Talk, published in the Sussex Express and County Herald (Lewes, Sussex, England) of Friday 7th December 1945:
I don’t think I have ever seen two people more delighted to get back to Lewes than Bert and Ethel were last Saturday. Their smiling faces when they burst in on us at tea-time were really a tonic. Bert was wearing his new utility suit, with a brand-new “butterfly” collar (just the spit of one I saw at Newhaven a few nights ago), and Ethel was all got up “like a dog’s dinner.”
The following is from Rogue Elephant (New York, 1946), by the English literary critic and novelist Walter Ernest Allen (1911-95):
He said: “I’m too old to be togged up like the dog’s dinner in a monkey jacket,” and Audrey giggled. He looked small and pathetic in his old-fashioned dinner clothes which had grown too large for him, the unrelenting stiff starched shirt with the studs of which Audrey had wrestled for a quarter of an hour.