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What Does "Dog Eat Dog" Mean?

By Henry Gaudet
Updated May 17, 2024
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The phrase “dog eat dog” is used to indicate a ruthless mindset, one in which causing harm to others is an acceptable means to achieve a goal. While at first glance the phrase seems to refer to wild animals fighting for survival, “dog eat dog” is most often used to describe difficult social situations such as a working environment. It implies that all competitors share a similar view, and that everyone is willing to fight to survive and thrive, regardless of the consequences to others.

“Dog eat dog” echoes the sentiment of the so called jungle law, known by the phrase “kill or be killed.” Another common phrase, “every man for himself”, repeats this theme as well. According to these adages, wild animals, and dogs in particular, are willing to fight and kill one another to survive. “Dog eats dog” goes a step further, stating that these creatures will resort to cannibalism. Both “dog eat dog” and “kill or be killed” use the harsh realities of life in the wild to justify selfish and ruthless actions in society.

According to the “dog eat dog” view, a person who fails to embrace this strategy will become the victim. Consideration and empathy are not viewed as virtues, but as weaknesses meant to be exploited. Treachery, cheating, intimidation and other underhanded tactics generally considered unacceptable by the public at large are seen as clever and effective. An action’s morality is simply considered irrelevant, with potential reward and risk of repercussion the true deciding factors.

This idiom may be a distortion of a much older adage. The oldest recorded versions of this phrase, a Latin proverb first recorded in English in 1543, states “dog does not eat dog.” This statement seems to indicate that canines will only turn so brutally on one another under extremely dire conditions. While dogs will certainly fight and compete with one another, it is unusual for them to kill one another, especially within a group, and even less likely for one to eat the other after a fight.

Thomas Fuller may have been the first to put the “dog eat dog” sentiment in print as far back as 1732, though his phrasing was notably different. In Gnomalogia, he wrote, “Dogs are hard drove when they eat dogs.” Etymologists believe that oral use of the idiom “dog eat dog” may date back to the middle of the 19th century. This leaner, modern three word phrase began to see common use in print in the early 1930’s.

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Discussion Comments
By nextcorrea — On Jan 21, 2012

@whiteplane - That's true, I can't argue that there is a dark side to human nature. But look at all the positive stories that come out of trying situations. You hear touching stories of sharing, self sacrifice, brotherhood, familial love and on and on. People are capable of great evil but also great love. I really believe this.

It's easy to get weighed down by the negative. The world can be a deeply sad and disappointing place. But if you are going to wake up every day and go out and be a part of this world then you have to believe that that is worth something and that this place is worth living in. You have to believe that there is more goodness than badness or what is the point?

By whiteplane — On Jan 21, 2012

I tend to be kind of cynical and I think it really is a dog eat dog world out there. We all seem to get along but I think that is because we live relatively easy lives. If there was just a little bit more stress and strain in this country people would start to show their true colors.

Anybody that has studied history has seen how fast the veil of civility breaks down in times of war, deprivation or great change. Friends, neighbors and even family member turn on each other often over petty things. The dog turns out to be surprisingly eager to eat the dog.

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