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‘To see a man about a dog’

Wikimedia/Universal Studios – Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, 1931
Investigating the origin of English idioms with Mensa member Stephen Colbourn
 
This article was first published in the September/October 2023 issue of IQ, the exclusive magazine for Mensa members. Find out more about becoming a Mensa member here.

The phrase ‘to see a man about a dog’ is an old but fairly common expression that appeared in English in the late 19th century. It is a wry excuse or mild fib declared with a wink: “I am going out and do not want to tell you where I am going.”
 
Perhaps the expression could have come from betting on dog races, except dog tracks are a 20th-century phenomenon. More likely, it is related to the Elizabethan expression ‘going to the dogs’, which meant being on the road to ruin – often financial or related to drink. The later 19th and early 20th-century usage related to dodgy business and drink. Alcohol can lead to perdition, which is why the US banned it in the Prohibition Act of 1920. “I’ve got to see a man about a dog” became understood as a reference to an illicit drinking spree or foray.
 
The line was delivered in a popular play of 1866 called Flying Scud, written by the playwright Dionysius Boucicault (pronounced boo-see-ko). No one remembers his name now but he was well-known in his day (1820-1890). Originally from Dublin, he took US citizenship as Dion Boucicault but was forever referred to as ‘English’, to his dismay.
 
Boucicault is responsible for a Hollywood modern horror drinking theme – human blood. How? In 1852, he staged a blood-and-thunder melodrama in London called The Vampire. He played the leading role of Sir Alan Raby and his sensational, over-the-top performance caused audience members to faint in the aisles. Following this success, he emigrated to the US; but The Vampire could not be staged there for moral reasons. It became forgotten.
 
Forgotten? No. Boucicault had a young Dublin friend and admirer who revived the play in book form without credit to Boucicault. Bram Stoker (1847-1912), theatre critic, theatre manager and author, visited the seaside town of Whitby in Yorkshire immediately after the death of Boucicault in 1890. He translated Sir Alan Raby into the Transylvanian Count Dracula and caused him to land at Whitby in the likeness of a great black dog.
 
Stoker waited until 1897 to publish Dracula and it remains in print. Hollywood and Hammer made a mint from it.
 
In the 1931 talking picture of Dracula, Bela Lugosi listens to wolves howling in the Transylvanian Forest and calls them “the children of the night”. When offered a glass of claret, he declines in Prohibitionary protest: “I never drink… wine.”
 

King of sensation theatre

Find out more about Dion Boucicault, the Irish playwright whose life was stranger than fiction.

Top image: Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, 1931. Credit Wikimedia/Universal Studios

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‘To see a man about a dog’

Investigating the origin of English idioms with Mensa member Stephen Colbourn
 
This article was first published in the September/October 2023 issue of IQ, the exclusive magazine for Mensa members. Find out more about becoming a Mensa member here.

The phrase ‘to see a man about a dog’ is an old but fairly common expression that appeared in English in the late 19th century. It is a wry excuse or mild fib declared with a wink: “I am going out and do not want to tell you where I am going.”
 
Perhaps the expression could have come from betting on dog races, except dog tracks are a 20th-century phenomenon. More likely, it is related to the Elizabethan expression ‘going to the dogs’, which meant being on the road to ruin – often financial or related to drink. The later 19th and early 20th-century usage related to dodgy business and drink. Alcohol can lead to perdition, which is why the US banned it in the Prohibition Act of 1920. “I’ve got to see a man about a dog” became understood as a reference to an illicit drinking spree or foray.
 
The line was delivered in a popular play of 1866 called Flying Scud, written by the playwright Dionysius Boucicault (pronounced boo-see-ko). No one remembers his name now but he was well-known in his day (1820-1890). Originally from Dublin, he took US citizenship as Dion Boucicault but was forever referred to as ‘English’, to his dismay.
 
Boucicault is responsible for a Hollywood modern horror drinking theme – human blood. How? In 1852, he staged a blood-and-thunder melodrama in London called The Vampire. He played the leading role of Sir Alan Raby and his sensational, over-the-top performance caused audience members to faint in the aisles. Following this success, he emigrated to the US; but The Vampire could not be staged there for moral reasons. It became forgotten.
 
Forgotten? No. Boucicault had a young Dublin friend and admirer who revived the play in book form without credit to Boucicault. Bram Stoker (1847-1912), theatre critic, theatre manager and author, visited the seaside town of Whitby in Yorkshire immediately after the death of Boucicault in 1890. He translated Sir Alan Raby into the Transylvanian Count Dracula and caused him to land at Whitby in the likeness of a great black dog.
 
Stoker waited until 1897 to publish Dracula and it remains in print. Hollywood and Hammer made a mint from it.
 
In the 1931 talking picture of Dracula, Bela Lugosi listens to wolves howling in the Transylvanian Forest and calls them “the children of the night”. When offered a glass of claret, he declines in Prohibitionary protest: “I never drink… wine.”
 

King of sensation theatre

Find out more about Dion Boucicault, the Irish playwright whose life was stranger than fiction.

Top image: Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, 1931. Credit Wikimedia/Universal Studios

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