I'm reading the book The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, and I read this about a Mole:

And instead of having an uneasy conscience pricking him and whispering ‘whitewash!’ he somehow could only feel how jolly it was to be the only idle dog among all these busy citizens.

In Brazil, we have several regional expressions using the word "dog" , such “a dog’s life” to say "hard life".

But, what about "[...]to be the only idle dog among all..."?

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    [What does "idle dog" mean? Use of present simple.]
    – Lambie
    Jan 8 at 15:48
  • You might like to note that a century or two ago, jolly was commonly used as an adjective meaning enjoyable, but today it's far more often used as an "intensifier" like very, really,... . So That was a jolly good party! and We had a jolly good time at the party are still perfectly natural to many speakers, but the straightforward adjectival usage We had a jolly time at the party is uncommon today. Jan 8 at 20:13
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    @FumbleFingers: "Jolly" as an intensifier sounds specifically British to me. In America I think it means "cheerful" but is mostly used to describe Santa Claus Jan 8 at 22:38
  • @NickMatteo: Well, yes - it's certainly much more common in BrE than AmE. But if you switch to just the AmE corpus on that linked chart you'll see that the intensifier usage does occur there too. I think most Americans would understand That was jolly difficult! without getting confused with wondering what could be "cheerful" about a "difficult" task, though. Jan 8 at 22:54
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    @NickMatteo - more common in BrE than AmE, but not excluded from the latter, especially on the east side: He goes on and on --and with jolly good reason--about the lusty charms of North Carolina pork barbecue (1982 Washington Post review of 'American Taste' by James Villas) Jan 9 at 14:18

2 Answers 2


'Dog' is just slang for '(usually) male person'. Especially at the time of writing (1908). Calling a man or boy a dog may be an insult or may not, but calling a girl woman a 'bitch' (a female dog) is almost always an insult in English-speaking countries.

You: I am going to marry a blonde film star whose father is very rich.
Me: You lucky dog!

Me: I slept all day yesterday
You: You lazy dog!

I am not working today; I am an idle dog while everyone else is working.

dog noun [C] (PERSON) slang

a person of a stated type:

You won $1000? You lucky dog!

Dog (noun) (Cambridge Dictionary)

  • Some people, especially a woman dog breeder I know, get angry that the word 'bitch' is considered so bad that people are afraid to use with its original purpose. Jan 8 at 14:07
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    The most common words used in exclamatory "You lucky xxx!" (most popular first) are bastard, dog, thing, girl, devil, man,... The fact of the top choice being NSFW (and contextually arguably "peculiar" thing being in 3rd place) makes me suspect "euphemism" is a factor in the usage dog here. We don't often hear things like You stupid dog!, and offhand I can't think of any similar contexts where dog (= person) is common. Jan 8 at 14:10
  • @FumbleFingers You sly dog! is a reasonably common admiring comment e.g. when a male friend or colleague announces his forthcoming parenthood. Context can decide a lot: You cowardly, lazy, idle, greedy, stupid, ignorant, foolish, lucky, sly, or mad dog! One can be (or aspire to be) top dog esp. in a dog eat dog world Jan 8 at 14:25
  • I forgot You sly dog!, You old dog! and You dirty dog!, all of which still occur fairly naturally in my circles. Most if not all the others would probably sound a bit "affected" to me in ordinary conversational contexts today. I notice one of the presenters on GB News sometimes adopts / is dubbed "Big Dog", which I think is quite "cute" (England's answer to Scotland's Big Yin :). Jan 8 at 19:00
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    @FumbleFingers - I forgot old and dirty. In my youth an amusing fellow was sometimes called a gay dog. Heaven knows what youngsters make of that. Jan 8 at 20:11

An "idle dog" is a common metaphorical way to refer to a lazy person.

The fact that Wind in the Willows uses anthropomorphism (making animals human) as a literary device makes it a little unusual of course - he's a mole but being called a dog. You really have to view these separately. Although a mole, all animals in the novel could be viewed as allegories for people and their human traits, including being idle. In fact, unlike some other 'beast stories', the animals are presented as having human lives - Toad lives in a stately home and drives a car, for example - so arguably they are not animals but humans that embody the characteristics of the animals they are named for (eg the water vole enjoys the river, the badger is somewhat hermit-like).

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    Idle dogs was still reasonably common over a century ago when The Wind In The Willows was written. But apart from reprints, I wouldn't say it's common today. Jan 8 at 14:18
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    Common in Victorian literature, as my linked chart clearly shows. Why vent your spleen on a comment that's potentially useful to learners who don't want to sound like a character in Dickens? Jan 8 at 14:24
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    @Astralbee A lot of the recent Google Books results are false positives. Searching 2016-19, the first has a period in between idle and dog. The second is from Tales and Novels by Maria Edgeworth first published in 1857. The third is about an idle person observing dogs. The fourth is kinda gibberish but might count. The fifth is from Ambrose Bierce who disappeared in 1914. Etc.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 8 at 14:49
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    @Astralbee: I've gone through several pages of results now, and haven't found a single true positive. Lots of reprints of old works, mostly. Jan 9 at 4:24
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    "I used the word "common" to mean commonly known or commonly understood." - but that's not what the word "common" means. Jan 9 at 9:01

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