Daily, we hear of underdogs. When Jack Layton carried his party to a never-before status, pundits declared the NDP underdogs had surprised us.
Throughout the never-ending campaigning endured by our poor American neighbours, we’re constantly told some candidate or another is the underdog. Once, President Obama, himself, was viewed as an underdog.
In sports, teams unlikely to win are described every day as underdogs. Individual athletes are seen the same way.
This term comes from the world of animal fighting notwithstanding what you might find on Google. One false explanation there involves sawing and seamen.
Underdog, originally under dog, was coined in the U.S., although its first print reference was in 1887 in the English newspaper, The Daily Telegraph. It didn’t take long for this term to gain a figurative meaning. That is, it was soon employed to describe people rather than animals. That happened in 1879. By 1892, Britain’s Daily Chronicle used it in a political sense.
At first, when underdog referred strictly to animals, it meant, “the defeated dog in a dogfight” — the animal that got the worst of it, in other words.
Dogfighting, like bear-baiting and cockfighting, is known as a blood sport, although it’s impossible to see anything sportsmanlike in any of these pastimes.
Nevertheless, dogfighting has been with us for centuries. It really became popular in England once bull- and bear-baiting were outlawed by the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1836. This was the first legislation in the world to outlaw animal baiting, an activity with a long tradition. As early as 1632, both dog-dog and dog-bull fighting were mentioned in A Treatise of Cases of Conscience.
When an animal, say a bear, was baited, it was first chained to a post in a pit or ring. The animal had limited movement before being brought up short by the chain. It couldn’t escape no matter how desperate it became. One by one, trained attack dogs were turned loose on the captive. The bear would defend itself with claws and teeth. Many dogs were killed. Sometimes, the bear also died.
In Britain, such baiting was considered a spectacle fit for royalty. At the same time, dog against dog was lower-class entertainment.
Shakespeare mentions baiting in several plays. For example, near the end of MacBeth (c.1606), when he is cornered at Dunsinane, MacBeth cries, “They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly/But bear-like I must fight the course” (V,vi,1-2).
Eventually, underdog came to mean, “one who is at a disadvantage.”
We still use this word that way when speaking of a probable loser — in sports, politics, or any other struggle or competition. The idea of expected defeat is implicit in underdog.
Underdog’s opposite is top dog, but this is a relatively new term, its earliest reference being 1900.
From the beginning, top dog has referred to people. It means, “a victor; a master; a person considered to hold the highest authority.”
And yet, the underdog often comes out on top.