EP 031: Man’s Best Friend

EP 031: MAN’S BEST FRIEND Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What do a lawyer, a poet and the King of Prussia have in common? In this episode, we're talking love, loyalty, and how cats (and people) can't be trusted. 

We’re not given to divisive politics here at Historycal, but at the risk of splitting the room, the phrase ‘man’s best friend’ refers, obviously, to dogs. If you disagree with this assessment, feel no obligation to continue with this instalment – episode 22 about madness is also very good.

What we are all about is filling you with enough titbits and fun facts to win arguments at dinner parties, so let’s talk about where the expression ‘a dog is a man’s best friend’ really comes from. Those of you who’ve been losing to the cat crowd might be relieved to know that it was not, in fact, dreamt up by empty headed socialites in the nineties, with a fondness for bedazzling their chihuahuas and shoving them into handbags. In fact, we seem to have known that dogs trump people pretty much since we stood up on two legs and started hanging out with each other.

The first record we have of someone committing their best friend = dog sentiments to paper comes from Frederick the Great, the king of Prussia. Frederick was very popular with what early historians like to call ‘the common people’ – i.e., you and I. But he was quite a solitary figure, possibly because he was almost certainly gay at a time when that wasn’t a particularly acceptable way of life. By which, of course, I mean that you could still be vilified, excommunicated, and/or killed. Frederick never married, and by the late 1700’s when he was in his 70’s, his close circle of friends had started transcending this mortal plane. He did replace them, but with greyhounds, instead of people. Never one to pass up the opportunity to insult the French, he referred to his greyhounds as his Marquises de Pompadour – a not-very-subtle (but still funny) reference to the French Royal Mistress at the time. (Yes, that was considered a real job, and yes, we will talk about it later. At length.) Frederick later referred to one of his greyhounds as his best friend – although, sadly, exactly which one is a detail lost to time.

Interestingly, Frederick the Great was considered such an effective ruler that he was much revered by later rulers of the area, even after it broke up into smaller territories. Unfortunately, the Nazi’s were included in this number, and one of their propaganda campaigns had images made showing Frederick, Bismark and Hitler hanging out together, in an attempt to create a sense of historical continuity amongst them. The idea was to legitimize the Nazi regime by giving it a weighty sense of history, and – for a while anyway – it worked. Frederick’s reputation suffered a fairly large blow for many years after World War II, although modern historians have largely forgiven him, given that he was extremely deceased by the time this all happened.

Around the time that Frederick was going for long walks with his greyhounds, Voltaire was writing his Dictionnaire philosophique.  Despite the name, this wasn’t a dictionary in our sense of the word, but more of an alphabetized encyclopedia of philosophical essays. Alongside his musings on religion, morality, history, and other such meaty topics, he writes that “It seems that nature has given the dog to man for his defence and for his pleasure. Of all the animals it is the most faithful: it is the best friend man can possibly have.”

He makes no mention of cats – make of that what you will.

Perhaps out of respect of that strange breed of person who prefers being disdained by their cats to worshipped by their dogs, nobody seems to have solidified the sentiment into the famous phrase, until 1941. By then, a man called Ogden Nash had developed a formidable reputation as a writer of light verse. Although his poetry is typically light and whimsical, he was taken quite seriously as a literary mind, with the New York Times declaring at his death that his “droll verse with its unconventional rhymes made him the country’s best-known producer of humorous poetry.”

In 1941, Nash wrote a poem called “An Introduction to Dogs”:

The dog is man’s best friend.

He has a tail on one end.

Up in front he has teeth.

And four legs underneath.

Dogs like to bark.

They like it best after dark.

They not only frighten prowlers away

But also hold the sandman at bay.

A dog that is indoors

To be let out implores.

You let him out and what then?

He wants back in again.

Dogs display reluctance and wrath

If you try to give them a bath.

They bury bones in hideaways

And half the time they trot sideways.

Dogs in the country have fun.

They run and run and run.

But in the city this species

Is dragged around on leashes.

Dogs are upright as a steeple

And much more loyal than people.

Well people may be reprehensibler

But that’s probably because they are sensibler.

There aren’t many ways in which a comparison between Ogden Nash and Voltaire would serve any purpose whatsoever, except to say that Nash did mention cats. Twice.

In The Cat he writes:

You get a wife, you get a house,

Eventually you get a mouse.

You get some words regarding mice,

You get a kitty in a trice.

By two a.m. or thereabouts,

The mouse is in, the cat is out.

It dawns upon you, in your cot,

The mouse is silent, the cat is not.

Instead of kitty, says your spouse,

You should have got another mouse.

The poem Kitten is far more succinct:

The trouble with a kitten is


Eventually it becomes a


Now Nash may have arranged the words into the order we like to use today, and his willingness to take on the cat brigade is nothing to turn your nose up at. But the honour of the most impassioned defense of the long established comradery between man and dog goes, without question, to Attorney George Graham Vest.

Perhaps in reaction to a rather unfortunate name, Vest developed a quite formidable skill at oratory. We don’t have time for his long, and – at times – slightly problematic career, but we’ll put in a pin in that for later.

During his own lifetime, he was best known for the closing argument he made to a jury in 1870. Having returned to Missouri after the Civil War, he was asked to take the case of one Charles Burden. The case was Burden v. Hornsby, but it’s better known as the Old Drum trial. Old Drum was Burden’s favourite foxhound, who was tragically shot and killed by sheep farmer Leonidas Hornsby. Burden sued Hornsby for damages of 150 dollars – the maximum that was allowed at the time. The two sides presented their evidence, and in his closing speech, Attorney Vest elected to completely ignore all of it. Instead, he delivered a powerful soliloquy popularly dubbed The Eulogy of the Dog.

Gentlemen of the jury, he said. The best friend a man has in the world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter. Whom he has reared with loving care may prove un­ grateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has he may lose. It flies away from him perhaps when he needs it most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honour when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is the dog.

Gentlemen of the jury, a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground when the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he can be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince.

When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens. If fortune drives the master forth an outcast into the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him, to guard him against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes his master in its embrace and his body is laid in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws and his eyes sad but open, in alert watchfulness, faithful and true, even unto death.

The jury – either moved to tears or afraid of looking cold and heartless, sided with Vest. His client was avoided 50 dollars, and in 1958 a statue of Old Drum was erected on the courthouse lawns, where it still stands today. A plaque was placed beneath it, presumably priced by the word because Vest’s eulogy was deemed too long. It reads simply:

A man’s best friend is his dog.  

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