44

I read a sentence in Word by Word by Kory Stamper which was:

People prairie-dog over the tops of their cubicles and call to their co-workers: "Hey, you going for a walk at lunch today?"

Although I don't want to, but I feel that the word has been used as a verb in there. But I couldn't find any verb usage of this word. So, has it been used in a wrong way?

47

group of prairie dogs

The term "prairie-dog" is definitely being used as a verb in the sentence. This use is not "proper" or "formal", but more colloquial and metaphorical. It makes the reader think of prairie dogs, stretching out their torsos and neck (seen here).

In addition, people typically think of prairie dogs as sticking up out of holes, which in the metaphor are the cubicles.


A non-metaphorical word might be peek, but it does not hold the exact same connotation:

peek

to stick out slightly and be partly seen:

  • 1
    It's defined in the online slang dictionary as: verb. to stick one's head up out of a cubicle to look at something. The term comes from prairie dogs, who burrow in the ground. In a field with prairie dogs, if there's a loud noise, typically many of them will pop their heads up out of the ground. – Owain Jul 4 at 9:04
  • 2
    As an aside - I've heard the term 'Meerkating' used many times over the last few years to describe the same thing, due to Meerkats performing a similar behaviour. – SeanR Jul 5 at 11:48
51

I think no picture can describe this better than from this Dilbert strip, as it was easily the first thing that came to my mind when I saw the question.

Left panel: prairie dogs.  Middle panel: Office workers.  Right Panel: prairie dogs dressed like office workers

As other answers have stated, the phrase draws parallels between how prairie dogs pop their heads up to look for danger and how office workers may pop their heads above the cubicle walls.

20

This is one of those cases where "a picture is worth a thousand words":

prairie dog

A prairie dog is a rodent common in the American midwest. They live in burrows under the ground, and can sometimes be seen standing up on two legs peeking out over the grass. Hence the expression "prairie dogging," to stretch up so as to peek over something.

enter image description here

  • The Wikipedia page that you've linked contains a note about this usage: "In companies that use large numbers of cubicles in a common space, employees sometimes use the term "prairie dogging" to refer to the action of several people simultaneously looking over the walls of their cubicles in response to a noise or other distraction. This action is thought to resemble the startled response of a group of prairie dogs." – Fabio says Reinstate Monica Jul 6 at 23:00
  • +1 for the 10th Doctor – Tim Brigham Jul 6 at 23:54

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