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Q: origins of the metaphor 'black dog' used to describe melancholy or depression. ( Answered 4 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: origins of the metaphor 'black dog' used to describe melancholy or depression.
Category: Reference, Education and News > Teaching and Research
Asked by: robinghood-ga
List Price: $2.50
Posted: 18 Dec 2004 23:09 PST
Expires: 17 Jan 2005 23:09 PST
Question ID: 444565
Question:  'How did the term 'black dog', (originally used to describe a
base silver coin (or sometimes a counterfeit coin) during the reign of
Queen Anne in the C19), later become used as a metaphor to describe a
depressed mood by Winston Churchill amongst others.
Subject: Re: origins of the metaphor 'black dog' used to describe melancholy or depressio
Answered By: juggler-ga on 19 Dec 2004 00:05 PST
Rated:4 out of 5 stars

From a web page on the origins of cliches and expressions:

"black dog - depression or sullen mood - an expression extremely old
origins; the cliché was made famous in recent times by Britain's WWII
leader Sir Winston Churchill referring to his own depressions. The
1800's version of the expression was 'a black dog has walked over
him/me' to describe being in a state of mental depression (Brewer
1870), which dates back to the myth described by Horace (Roman poet
and satirist, aka Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65-8 BC) in which the
sight of a black dog with pups was an unlucky omen. Contributing also
to the meaning of the cliché, black dogs have have for centuries been
fiendish and threatening symbols in the superstitions and folklore of
various cultures."

The excerpt from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable cited above
may be read on
"A black dog has walked over him. Said of a sullen person. Horace
tells us that the sight of a black dog with its pups was an unlucky
omen. "

From the Mensa International Journal:

"Black dog dates from the 1700s, but long before that, Horace, the
Roman poet, noted that to see a black dog, especially with pups, was a
premonition of bad luck. In the Middle Ages, too, it was believed that
the devil disguised himself as a black dog which is the form he
assumed in Goethe?s ?Faust.?
Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84), English lexicographer, was known for his
metaphorical use of the ?black dog? in describing his melancholia:
?The Black Dog I hope always to resist, and in time to drive, though I
am deprived of almost those that used to help me??, and in 1826,
Lockhart talks of ?A great relief from the Black Dog which would have
worried me at home? in Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott..."
source: Words... with Kate Nacard, Mensa International Journal, January 2005

"Black dog" owes much of its popularity to Churchill.  However, as
indicated above, Churchill was not the first famous person to use it. has an excellent discussion of the term and includes a
few more quotations from Samuel Johnson and others.

As you may be aware, The Black Dog Institute is sponsoring contest on this subject.

If you're planning to enter that contest, good luck!

search strategy:
"black dog" depression expression 
"black dog has walked over "
"black dog"  johnson melancholy

I hope this helps.

Request for Answer Clarification by robinghood-ga on 19 Dec 2004 03:44 PST
Thanks for the detailed posting. You are correct I am intending to
enter the competition. Most of the references you mentioned I have
managed to find already by way of the net and a local library. Namely
the reference to Horace, the 'black dog' of English folklore, as well
as the Samuel Johnson quote.

What I really wanted to know however, was how the conection between
the name of a silver coin the 'black dog', later became to be used as
a metaphor for something apparently totally unrelated. I just can't
make the conection unless it can be explained as a corruption of the
origional meaning, something that as you are no doubt aware happens
constantly with the English language, particularly with word meanings.

I greatly appreciate the efforts you have made, and certainly feel
that you deserve reimbursement for your trouble, even so I still feel
not much the wiser as to how the same expression came to mean two
completely different things.

Clarification of Answer by juggler-ga on 19 Dec 2004 10:10 PST
Why do you believe that the metaphor for depression derived from the
coin? Have you found any source that suggests the existence of such a

Sure, the same two words are involved, but that doesn't necessarily
mean that the depression metaphor derived from the coin slang.  As
indicated above, the use of "black dog" as a metaphor for something
negative is more ancient than the coin.

I'm sorry that I wasn't tell you anything that you didn't already
know.  If your question had indicated that you already were aware of
Horace, Samuel Johnson, etc., I surely wouldn't have mentioned those

The title of your question was "Origins of the metaphor 'black dog'
used to describe melancholy or depression."  Unaware of what you
already knew, I proceeded to find multiple sources on that topic.

Also, the $2.50 list price here is inconsistent with your apparent
need for original research to prove a thesis that no one else seems to
have yet made or even suggested.

Again, my apologies for not being of more help to you.

Clarification of Answer by juggler-ga on 19 Dec 2004 10:19 PST
Sorry for the typo above:

"I'm sorry that I wasn't able to tell you..."

Request for Answer Clarification by robinghood-ga on 19 Dec 2004 14:38 PST
Yes, fair enough, I was a bit vague about wording the origional
question. My response to your answer probably did not help either. I
did realise later that it is highly unlikely there would be any
connection between the use of the same term for two such disparate
meanings i.e. a coin and depression, and that the 2 meanings must have
evolved separately. I'll focus on the origional source of the term and
it's association with bad luck i.e. Horace, as it seems much more
feasable that the original meaning, could over time, come to mean
depression or melancholy.

Clarification of Answer by juggler-ga on 19 Dec 2004 18:04 PST
Thank you for the tip and good luck with the contest.
robinghood-ga rated this answer:4 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $1.50
Pretty good answer, although I still feel I need to do more research
at the Churhill end as to who or what influenced him to use the
expression 'black dog' as a means of describing depression. I.e. was
it in common use in his day or did he first coin it? Anyway, I am new
to this and accept my wording of the question was probably lacking. I
felt the answer deserved 4 stars because of the effort that went into
it in relation to the price I first offered, as much as anything else.
(Being an Aussie I will tip, but please remember it is not something
we do, or feel particularly comfortable with in the land of Aus!)

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