This article contains too many or overly lengthy quotations. (December 2019)
"Man's best friend" is a common phrase used to describe domestic dogs referring to their multi-millennia long history of close relations, loyalty, friendship, and companionship with humans. The first recorded use of a related phrase is by Frederick the Great of Prussia. It was likely popularized by its use in a poem by Ogden Nash and has since become a common colloquialism.
Before the 19th century, breeds of dogs (other than lap dogs) were largely functional. They performed activities such as hunting, tracking, watching, protecting and guarding; and language describing the dog often reflected these roles. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "In the oldest proverbs and phrases dogs are rarely depicted as faithful or as man's best friend, but as vicious, ravening, or watchful." Beginning in the 18th century, multiplying in the 19th and flourishing in the 20th century, language and attitudes towards dogs began to shift.
Argos and Odysseus
As they [Eumaeus and Ulysses] were thus talking, a dog that had been lying asleep raised his head and pricked up his ears. This was Argos, whom Ulysses had bred before setting out for Troy, but he had never had any work out of him. In the old days he used to be taken out by the young men when they went hunting wild goats, or deer, or hares, but now that his master was gone he was lying neglected on the heaps of mule and cow dung that lay in front of the stable doors till the men should come and draw it away to manure the great close; and he was full of fleas. As soon as he saw Ulysses standing there, he dropped his ears and wagged his tail, but he could not get close up to his master. When Ulysses saw the dog on the other side of the yard, dashed a tear from his eyes without Eumaeus seeing it, and said:
Eumaeus, what a noble hound that is over yonder on the manure heap: his build is splendid; is he as fine a fellow as he looks, or is he only one of those dogs that come begging about a table, and are kept merely for show?"
This hound," answered Eumaeus, "belonged to him who has died in a far country. If he were what he was when Ulysses left for Troy, he would soon show you what he could do. There was not a wild beast in the forest that could get away from him when he was once on its tracks. But now he has fallen on evil times, for his master is dead and gone, and the women take no care of him. Servants never do their work when their master's hand is no longer over them, for Jove takes half the goodness out of a man when he makes a slave of him."
King Frederick II of Prussia
Poet C.S. van Winkle
The earliest citation in the U.S. is traced to a poem by C.S. Winkle printed in The New-York Literary Journal, Volume 4, 1821:
- The faithful dog – why should I strive
- To speak his merits, while they live
- In every breast, and man's best friend
- Does often at his heels attend.
Attorney George Graham Vest
In 1870 Warrensburg, Missouri, George Graham Vest represented a farmer suing for damages after his dog, Old Drum, had been shot and killed. During the trial, Vest stated that he would "win the case or apologize to every dog in Missouri."
Vest's closing argument to the jury made no reference to any of the testimony offered during the trial, and instead offered a eulogy of sorts. Vest's "Eulogy of the Dog" is one of the most enduring passages of purple prose in American courtroom history (only a partial transcript has survived):
Gentlemen of the jury: The best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. 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 the 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 honor 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 and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his 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, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may 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 encounters 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 in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies, and when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid away 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, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even to death.
Vest won the case (the jury awarded $50 to the dog's owner) and also won its appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court.
As well, a bust of the dog resides in the Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City, Missouri.
- CHIEN. — Il semble que la nature ait donné le chien à l'homme pour sa défense et pour son plaisir. C'est de tous les animaux le plus fidèle : c'est le meilleur ami que puisse avoir l'homme.
Translated, this reads:
- DOG. — It seems that nature has given the dog to man for his defense and for his pleasure. Of all the animals it is the most faithful: it is the best friend man can possibly have.
In 1941, Ogden Nash wrote "An Introduction to Dogs," beginning:
- The dog is man's best friend.
- He has a tail on one end.
- Up in front he has teeth.
- And four legs underneath.
- "Poem: Introduction to Dogs, An by Ogden Nash". www.poetrynook.com. Retrieved 2023-05-19.
- Paton, Bernadette (2013). "The dog: man's best friend?(The use of man's best friend has usually been about dogs. They are hard working and reliable mammals)". www.oed.com. Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved July 5, 2013.
- "The Odyssey of Homer: Book XVII". Sacred-texts.com. Retrieved 2019-08-16.
- Laveaux, C.J.; King of Prussia, F (1789). The life of Frederick the Second, King of Prussia: To which are added observations, Authentic Documents, and a Variety of Anecdotes. J. Derbett London.
- Martin, Gary. "Man's Best Friend." The Phrase Finder. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 July 2013. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/mans-best-friend.html>.
- The New-York Literary Journal, and Belles-lettres Repository. C.S. Van Winkle. 1821.
- "Eulogy of the Dog" (PDF). www.sos.mo.gov. Missouri Secretary of State's Office. Retrieved 12 December 2018.
- Coren, Stanley (2009-10-21). ""A Man's Best Friend is his Dog": The Senator, the Dog, and the Trial". Psychology Today. Retrieved 2010-09-27.
- The Trial of Old Drum – New York Times Television Review – June 9, 2000
- Oeuvres complètes, tome 7ième, Paris 1817, p. 587 books.google