Origin of "Hair of the Dog" for a Hangover Cure

Posted on 21 Jan 2015 19:02

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It's Sunday morning, or, rather, afternoon. Saturday night is a blur, but you do know that you drank more than your fair share. You know this because of your pounding headache, and queasy stomach. You know because the afternoon sun hitting your eyes feels like someone is taking an electric drill to your brain. You're weak, achy, dizzy, and there is a taste in your mouth that is indescribable and altogether disgusting. Oh, and you have cotton-mouth to boot. In a word, you are miserable. Worst hangover ever. Well, there is nothing for it but the hair of the dog.

Hair of the dog is actually short, as you well know for "the hair of the dog that bit you." It means taking a little drink, or a big drink, of alcohol to cure a hangover. The idea is that "like cures like." If alcohol got you where you are now, then more alcohol will dig you out. Whether this really works or not is a subject of debate, of course. Certainly, alcohol will not cure an alcohol hangover. There is nothing that will for sure cure one. For some, more alcohol may blunt some of the symptoms, temporarily, but all you're doing is adding more alcohol and increasing the load on your body, prolonging the effect. Many people cannot stand the thought of drinking more the night after a binge. This ability has a lot to do with tolerance if nothing else.

But, why do we call a morning after nip "hair of the dog (that bit you)?" The idiom has been around at least since the 1500's. The earliest print reference is a collection of English proverbs by John Heywood, from 1546:

I pray thee let me and my fellow have
A hair of the dog that bit us last night
And bitten were we both to the brain aright
We saw each other drunk in the good ale glass2

In fact, this advice shows up in recipes and "household advice" books from the 1600's. Drink too much? Have a little nip the next morning!

The idiom in its modern sense may have nothing to do with a dog's hair but it does stem from the same. It comes from the quite ancient belief that if you were bitten by a dog, a poultice of hair from the same animal, pressed against the bite, would either help heal the bite or at least "protect you from the evil consequences of the bite." This may have been a reference to rabies, which, no doubt, was thought to be a possession by some kind of evil spirit, or the like.

The belief that the hair of the dog that bit you was a cure for the bite was firmly believed in ancient Britain. I've read references, although I cannot confirm their authenticity, of a woman suing a man after the man's dog bit her, saying that she would not have done so if only he had given her some of the dog's hair.

Sometimes, instructions for this dog bite treatment specifically advised cutting the hair off the tail.

Of course, the hair of a dog was not the only ancient cure. For instance, it was also claimed that if you were bitten by a "mad dog," you would also go mad unless you killed the dog at once.

Another sure-fire rabies preventative was the madstone. It was believed to draw out the poison if you pressed the stone against the bite. If the dog was not mad, the stone would just fall off. If the dog were mad, the stone would adhere to the wound until all the poisons were drawn out. As you can surmise, the stone was named after the very condition it was meant to protect against, madness. These stones were also thought to cure snake bites.

A madstone was actually a hard accretion, called a calculus, sometimes found in the stomach of ruminant animals who chew their cud, such as deer, from which the very best madstones were said to come. They are the same thing as bezoars, which have a long history of being poison antidotes, as well as possessing many magical properties. Harry Potter fans may be familiar with them!

1. Chrysti. Verbivore's Feast: Second Course: More Word & Phrase Origins. Helena, MT: Farcountry, 2006.
2. Farmer, John S., ed. The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies of John Heywood. London: Early English Drama Society, 1562.

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