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Believe it or not, this saying actually began as "dog does not eat dog"!
And it was quite well known - in that form - literally for centuries.
The saying dates back to the writings of Roman scholar and writer Marcus Tarentius Varro. In a commentary on the human condition written in 43 BCE, he observed that even "Canis caninam non est" ("Dog does not eat dog").
The point he was making is that sometimes humans can act in ways that 'lesser creatures' never would: through the destruction of their own kind. In light of the horrendous act of terror perpetrated on innocent victims in Boston, this seems tragically timely....
By the 16th century, there is evidence that the phrase had been turned around, with "dog eat dog" being used to describe the ruthlessly competitive individual.
Both phrases were in use up until the late 1800's. Shakespeare was still using it in its original form in 1602 when he wrote Troilus and Cressida (one of his lesser known works) as was Hugh Henry Brackenridge in his book, 'Modern Chivalry,' published in 1792.
Not surprisingly, by the time of the Industrial Revolution, phrases such as "it's a dog eat dog world" had become commonplace, and eventually overtook the original phrase altogether.
The Word Detective
Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings, Gregory Y. Titelman, Random House, New York, 1996.
Comment-a-thon Update: We've had over 130 comments since last Sunday, and at 50 cents each - well, we talked mom into rounding up to $75 to donate to the Jackson Galaxy fundraiser that will be held here in Kansas City in 3 weeks. Thank you all for participating!