Posted by: Jack Henry | December 8, 2022

Editor’s Corner: Putting on the Dog

Dear Editrix,

I was reading about the (White House) state dinner last night, and in my head, I heard my parents saying “Wow, they were really putting on the dog!” Where does that expression come from? Just curious. 😊


Amy W.

Dear Amy,

What an interesting question! I had never heard that expression before. Here’s what I found out.

Let’s start with what it means. According to Southern Living, “Putting on the dog” means to be fancy or flashy. Here are some examples:

If someone is throwing a party and pulls out all the stops, including the good silver, you could say they’re "putting on the dog." If someone gets extra gussied up—with hot rollers and lipstick and all—you could impressively note that they "put on the dog." If your in-laws are coming in town and you’ve whipped out everything from the embroidered hand towels and homemade cheese straws, you’re "putting on the dog." It can go for people, events, items, or really anything a Southerner dubs it so.

The article describes this as a deeply Southern expression that even some Southerners don’t know, but when I dug around a little more, other articles said that the phrase was first referenced at Yale, which is in Connecticut. From English Grammar Lessons:

The first record of “put on the dog” was referenced in Four Years at Yale, by Lyman H. Bagg. [KC – I thought maybe he was from the South, but he was brought up in Massachusetts. I’m not sure about his parents.] In this text, Bagg wrote that the idiom meant: “Dog, style, splurge. To put on the dog is to make a flashy display, to cut a swell.” During the same period of time, “doggy,” an adjective that was related to the idiom, came about. It, too, was used as a popular slang term that means “attractively stylish; costly; fancy.”

The phrase put on the dog may also be linked to nobility and aristocracy, as wealthier ladies often kept small dogs as pets and allowed them to sit on their laps (so-called “lapdogs”). A common lapdog breed, the Maltese, a long, silky-haired dog that was a highly pampered pet of the noble women of ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece.

As is often the case, the more you investigate a particular idiom, the cloudier its origin becomes. Wherever it originated, it is currently more Southern than East Coast, and your thought about people “putting on the dog” for the White House dinner is the perfect example of something you’d get gussied up for!

Putting on the Human:

Kara Church | Technical Editor, Advisory | Technical Publications

Pronouns: she/her | Call via Teams |

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