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That’s Where the Dog Lies Buried

Reader Hillel Bick queries, “Could you please comment on the derivation of the Yiddish expression ‘Do ligt der hunt bagrobn’”?

Literally this means, “That’s where the dog lies buried.” Its actual sense, however, is something like, “That’s what lies behind it” or, “So that’s it.” Generally speaking, it’s an expression used more for negative situations than for positive ones. If, for example, you saw an acquaintance of yours looking unusually happy and you wondered why, and later you were told that he had just won the lottery, you wouldn’t say — unless you wished to be ironic — “Do ligt der hunt bagrobn.” But if the same acquaintance were looking miserable and you found out that his girlfriend has just left him, the remark would be appropriate.

Since German has the same expression, Da liegt der Hund begraben, it’s reasonable to assume that the Yiddish comes from it. But why should such an expression exist at all? What do buried dogs have in common with reasons or motives that have come to light?

Perhaps the answer is that when one buries a dog, one sometimes does it so hurriedly and digs too shallow a grave so that the dead body, alas, gives away its presence, whether by smell or otherwise. I can vouch for such an occurrence myself.

It happened years ago. Friends of ours, a couple that lives in our town, had a large dog named Eddie, an ill-tempered beast with the bad habit of occasionally biting their guests. This made their home hazardous to visit. Of course, no one would take Eddie off their hands, and they didn’t have the heart to put him down, so they just went on living with him and becoming lonelier and lonelier until one day, by a stroke of good fortune, Eddie tried biting a passing car and died. I was the first to find out about it, because the couple called me immediately and asked me to come help bury him.

I brought my garden hoe, and we buried Eddie in the back yard in a matter of minutes and then drank a toast to his death. The next morning, I received a telephone call from the wife. Her husband already had left home to go to work, and she was hysterical. “You’ve got to come!” she screamed into the phone. “Eddie has come back to life.”

I rushed over. Sure enough, Eddie was rising from his grave. One foreleg was already sticking out of it, and the rest of him seemed about to follow. My first impulse was to turn and run. But first, I thought, I had better knock on the neighbors’ doors and warn them to stay inside.

In the end, however, curiosity got the better of fear. I decided to investigate Eddie’s resurrection more carefully. And indeed, as it turned out, once the ground that covered him was removed, he was every bit as dead as we had thought he was. All that had happened was that his body, which had been laid on its back, had gone into a state of extreme rigor mortis and as it did, a leg had uncurled and stiffened and pushed its way up through the earth. In our haste to be rid of Eddie, we had not buried him deeply enough.

Did something similar happen to the German who first exclaimed, “Da liegt der Hund begraben”? It could well be. As another Yiddish expression has it, “Loz a hunt af der bank, shpringt er afn tish” — “Let a dog climb onto the bench, and he’ll jump on the table.” If you must bury one, do it properly.

* * *|

Speaking of dogs and expressions, Marjorie Wolfe wants to know: “How would you say in Yiddish: ‘Dogs come when they’re called. Cats take a message and get back to you later”?

I guess you would say, “A hunt kumt az m’ ruft im. A kats nemt an onzog un kert zikh shpeter tsurik.”

As is well known, the world is divided up into dog lovers and cat lovers. There are those who adore both and those who abide neither, but on the whole, one either loves dogs for their loyalty and scorns cats for their fickleness, or loves cats for their independence and scorns dogs for their dumb obedience.

Are there dog-loving and cat-loving languages, as well? Although I don’t know the answer, Yiddish proverbs favor cats. Dogs are frightening (“A hunt geyt men oys dem veg” — To avoid “a dog, one makes a detour”), not to be trusted (“Mit dem bestn hunt iz nit gut kayn asokim tzu hobn” — “The best of dogs should not be dealt with”) and ungrateful (“Az m’tut a hunt guts, bilt er nokh” — “Do a dog a favor, and he still barks”). Cats have good manners (“A kats vasht zikh un a guter yid bentsht” — “A cat washes itself [as a Jew does before eating] and a good Jew blesses his food”), are lovable (“Az m’shpilt zikh mit a kats, muz men far lib nemen ir krats” — “When you play with a cat, accept its scratches out of love”) and cleverly adaptive (“Varf di kats vu du vilst, blaybt zi altz shteyn af di fis” — “Throw a cat where you will, it always lands on its feet”). And not only that. Leave it a message, and it will get back to you.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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