Saturday, December 28, 2013

New Year's Day Special: Phraseological Genealogy of "Until The Last Dog Is Hung"

"We'll keep going until the last dog is hung"

It's funny how the phrases that your mother uses are so woven into to your worldview that their strangeness never occurs to you.  Years later, you use them and your spouse gives you a quizzical look and you realize that your ordinary phrase is someone else's complete non-sequitur.

So that phrase - "We'll keep at it until the last dog is hung" has always been part of my world.  When my mother is at her most tired, and her most determined, out it comes.  We always knew exactly what it meant.  Sure "Come Hell or High Water" could be used.  There are probably dozens of phrases women have used to describe that moment of exhaustion and determination.  But this one is my mother's.

Then I read this in a novel:
"Even now things that people thought of as regional attitudes and expressions come straight from the Senecas. When anybody from around here wanted to say they were still present at the end of a big party, they would say they had 'stayed until the last dog was hung.' Most of them probably had no idea anymore that they were talking about the Seneca New Year's celebration in the winter, where on the fifth day they used to strangle a white dog and hang it on a pole, Nobody had done that for at least a hundred years." Dance for the Dead by Thomas Perry (Random House, New York, 1996)
I don't know whether this is true or not - if so, I'm glad the actual ritual had disappeared.  But its metaphoric remnants intrigued me.  My mother was born and raised in Oregon, and raised me in Colorado.  Her parents were both born in Oregon.  Her grandparents were born on the West Coast as well.

How could a phrase from a tribal ritual in upstate New York have ended up completely integrated into my mother's vernacular?  I asked her where she learned it, and she doesn't remember her vocabulary without it.  For her it isn't specific to staying until the end of a celebration or a party, but rather sticking to any situation until it is completed.

So into the family tree I went.  And sure enough, four generations back from mother, there he is.  A great grandfather born in 1820 in Schroon Lake, Essex County, New York, deep in the Adirondacks.  Here is a Thomas Cole painting of the lake from about 1840.  And his father was born in Floyd, Oneida County, New York in 1783.  Floyd wasn't officially founded until 1790, and Schroon in 1804.  This was a frontier family, living in Mohawk and Oneida territory.  Maybe the ritual was more widespread than the Seneca alone..

So there we have it - maybe, somehow, (and remember, this is Genealogy Imaginings not Genealogy Certainties) this phrase was passed down and persisted all the way to the other side of the continent.  Maybe the meaning changed a little to reflect the things that made these new generations tired, or maybe the original party sense didn't translate well in the first place.  But it was a useful phrase, and it lasted, and I enjoy the idea.

Happy New Year.  May you party just long enough, avoid harming any pets in the process, and have a great 2014.

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