The Black Dog of Depression: History of a Metaphor

Those of us who suffer through occasional (or regular) bouts of depression know just how apt is Winston Churchill's metaphor. Through a cycle of successes and failures, advances and setbacks that would have broken a lesser man, he suffered recurrent depression and nearly paralyzing melancholia. He described the days of his dark moods as being pursued by a black dog.

It's a perfect turn of phrase, capturing the inescapable sense of helpless isolation, the futility of trying to hold your ground against a powerful, dangerous beast. Running will do no good, yet there is nothing to do BUT run. If you slow down, if you give in, even if you stumble through no fault of your own, the black dog will catch up to you and that's the end.

Depression is like this:
No company’s more hateful than your own
You dodge and give yourself the slip; you seek
In bed or in your cups from care to sneak
In vain: the black dog follows you and hangs
Close on your flying skirts with hungry fangs.

Perfectly apt lines describing those days when "no company is more hateful than your own". But guess what? This is an 1863 translation of lines that were written more than two thousand years ago, by the poet Horace. Paul Foley, the author of the article "‘Black dog’ as a metaphor for depression: a brief history", says that the original Latin probably translates better as "a dusky companion", and that the translator (J. Conington) was using a looser phrase that would speak to his 19th century audience.

Still, that means "black dog" was in common parlance in 1863. Where did it come from before that? Mr. Foley's article traces it back to Samuel Johnson, that great lexicographer, word nerd and bon vivant of the 1770's and 80's. The phrase was used in his circle and amplified by him:
In the place where you now are, there is much to be observed… But what will you do to keep away the black dog that worries you at home? … The great direction which Burton has left to men disordered like you, is this, Be not solitary; be not idle: which I would thus modify;– If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.
For those of us who have to deal with our own black dogs, that's pretty good advice.

If you're interested in how language evolves and how phrases arise and become eternal, go give Mr. Foley's article a read.

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