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The phrase “dog eat dog” is used to indicate a ruthless mindset, one in which causing harm to others is an acceptable means to achieve a goal. While at first glance the phrase seems to refer to wild animals fighting for survival, “dog eat dog” is most often used to describe difficult social situations such as a working environment. It implies that all competitors share a similar view, and that everyone is willing to fight to survive and thrive, regardless of the consequences to others.
“Dog eat dog” echoes the sentiment of the so called jungle law, known by the phrase “kill or be killed.” Another common phrase, “every man for himself”, repeats this theme as well. According to these adages, wild animals, and dogs in particular, are willing to fight and kill one another to survive. “Dog eats dog” goes a step further, stating that these creatures will resort to cannibalism. Both “dog eat dog” and “kill or be killed” use the harsh realities of life in the wild to justify selfish and ruthless actions in society.
According to the “dog eat dog” view, a person who fails to embrace this strategy will become the victim. Consideration and empathy are not viewed as virtues, but as weaknesses meant to be exploited. Treachery, cheating, intimidation and other underhanded tactics generally considered unacceptable by the public at large are seen as clever and effective. An action’s morality is simply considered irrelevant, with potential reward and risk of repercussion the true deciding factors.
This idiom may be a distortion of a much older adage. The oldest recorded versions of this phrase, a Latin proverb first recorded in English in 1543, states “dog does not eat dog.” This statement seems to indicate that canines will only turn so brutally on one another under extremely dire conditions. While dogs will certainly fight and compete with one another, it is unusual for them to kill one another, especially within a group, and even less likely for one to eat the other after a fight.
Thomas Fuller may have been the first to put the “dog eat dog” sentiment in print as far back as 1732, though his phrasing was notably different. In Gnomalogia, he wrote, “Dogs are hard drove when they eat dogs.” Etymologists believe that oral use of the idiom “dog eat dog” may date back to the middle of the 19th century. This leaner, modern three word phrase began to see common use in print in the early 1930’s.