The ‘Hair of the Dog’: A Historical and Cultural Exploration of a Time-Honored Remedy

The phrase “hair of the dog” is derived from a longer expression: “the hair of the dog that bit you.” It is commonly used to describe the practice of consuming a small amount of alcohol to alleviate the symptoms of a hangover. The underlying idea is that by ingesting a small quantity of the substance that caused the ailment (in this case, alcohol), one can treat or cure the ailment.

The principle of “like cures like” [Latin: similia similibus curantur] can be traced back to the humoral theory of medicine that was established in ancient Greece. The idea was also applied in various cultures across the world for many different ailments. For example, in medieval Europe, it was not uncommon for bits of a hangman’s rope to be consumed in the belief that it would cure various ailments including neck pain, colic, and tooth ache.

In Europe, the origins of the “hair of the dog” phrase might be traced back at least into the 17th Century with several texts recording treatments involving dog hair for dog bites. By way of publication in “English Folk-lore”, Dyer recites that in “La Gitanilla”, one of Cervantes’ novelas published in the 1600s: “A young man on approaching a gipsy camp by night, was attacked and bitten by dogs. An old gipsy woman undertook to cure his wounds, and her procedure was: She took some hairs of the dogs, and fried them in oil, and having first washed with wine the bites he had in his left leg, put the hairs and oil upon them, with a little chewed green rosemary over them; she then bound the wounds up with clean cloths, and made the sign of the cross over them.” This is just one example of an ancient homoeopathic doctrine using dog hair; and such medical beliefs may still persist today. In 2010 Quave and colleagues interviewed 80 people in different countries and found a number in Italy and Albania who were aware of using dog hair to treat a dog bite, particularly with the intent to prevent rabies, though the report authors don’t state if the treatment was actually practiced.

By the 19th Century the idea of dog hair healing a dog bite seems to have been linked to a more superstitious philosophy in parts of the United Kingdom. A letter in “Notes and Queries” from 1852, says: “Hair cut off, an Antidote. A few days ago I observed my old servant thrusting something into the ear of one of my cows. Upon inquiry, I was informed that it was hair cut off the calf’s tail, the said calf having been taken away from the cow on the previous morning: the butcher cut it off, for the above purpose, to make her forget the calf.” I half resolved on sending this account to “N. & Q.,” but I hesitated, under the idea that it would perhaps hardly be worth the while. But this afternoon my eye caught the following scrap in a newspaper just published: At Oldham, last week, a woman summoned [prosecuted] the owner of a dog that had bitten her. She said that she should not have adopted this course had the owner of the animal given her some of its hair, to ensure her against any evil consequences following the bite.” There is so much similarity in the two cases that I now would ask whether your readers can throw any light on the subject?”

Using dog hair to treat a dog bite is not unique to Europe and similar beliefs seem to have prevailed in China in the 1800s. An excerpt from Dr Denny’s book on the Folk-Lore of China says: “The fact of a dog’s hair possessing mystic powers, in Chinese Hakka belief, is illustrated by the following incident related to me by a distinguished sinologue in this Colony. While on his missionary tours in the Canton province he was usually accompanied by a powerful dog, at which, in some of the villages he passed through, the children were somewhat frightened and once or twice very slightly bitten. In such a case the mother would run after him and beg for a hair from the dog’s tail, as a charm against the evil one. The hair thus obtained would be put to the part bitten in the belief that the spirit which the fright suffered by the child had caused to pass into his person, would thereby be attracted from it.”

The first clear link between drinking and taking the hair of the dog as a hangover cure in print that I can find seems to be from around about 1650 and published in 1685. A verse simply titled “SONG XXIX” from Henry Bold’s book of “Latine Songs” :

“If any so wise is, that sack [fortified wine] he despises,
Let him drink his small beer and be sober;
And while we drink and sing, as if it were spring,
He shall droop like the trees in October.

But be sure overnight, if this dog do you bite,
You may take it henceforth for a warning;
Soon as out of your bed, to settle your head,
Take a hair of his tail in the morning.”

This in turn was probably derived from a French ditty published in the second book of the “Jardin Musical” published in Antwerp in 1556, by Hubert Waelrant. Various other publications from the 1500s could also claim to be the first to link dogs hair to treating hangovers including “The Proverbs of John Heywood” first printed in 1546 where this phrase (modified from the original typeset olde English) is used:

“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 glass.”

So it seems that with time, the connection to a more literal understanding of “hair of the dog” as a treatment has been lost, and what remains is the idea of “like cures like” using alcohol.

The expression has been immortalized in various poems, songs and plays, and its continued usage in literature has helped keep the saying alive through the centuries. In contemporary culture, the phrase is most commonly used in the context of consuming alcohol to relieve a hangover. Despite the prevalence of this advice, medical science does not support the idea that consuming more alcohol is an effective treatment for a hangover. Instead, it’s generally recommended to rehydrate and rest!

Of course, from a modern medical standpoint the concept behind “hair of the dog” is generally considered to be flawed. Consuming more alcohol may temporarily alleviate some symptoms of a hangover by essentially prolonging the intoxication, but it does not address the underlying issues, such as dehydration and nutrient depletion, that are the actual causes of hangover symptoms.

The phrase “hair of the dog” has become ingrained in several cultures and languages, often being cited humorously or casually. It is an example of how folk remedies and ancient medical practices can have a lasting impact on language and culture, even after the original practices themselves have been discredited or replaced by modern medical understanding. The longevity of the phrase speaks to the intriguing interplay between language, culture, and medicine, and how each can inform and shape the other over time.

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