You could say today’s phrase is one of Biblical proportions!
First, the definition: To say a person or place has really "gone to the dogs" means they've really let themselves go, or the place just isn't what it used to be.
In truth, the basis for the concept of “gone to the dogs” did originate in the Torah, specifically from the following verse:
"…you shall not eat flesh of an animal that was torn in the field; to the dog shall you throw it." [Exodus, 22:30-31].
|"Stray dog on calle Santa Catalina" by mcgmatt|
So how did we get from a literal guideline on food safety, written somewhere between the 16th and the 12th centuries BCE, to today's more figurative expression?
It's a safe bet that the term morphed throughout the ages from its literal meaning to today's more figurative one. A search uncovered hints of the phrase being used in various cultures throughout antiquity. But every attempt to track down and verify those claims proved fruitless.
|Dog Statue in Kowloon Walled City Park |
Kowloon City, Hong Kong
Wikimedia (GNU Free License)
Instead, they roamed in packs, often subsisting on rubbish thrown over the wall by those who lived inside. According to this source, when criminals were expelled or banished from the city they were said to have “gone to the dogs.”
But to hear the All-Words site tell it, the origin might be traceable back to an ancient Egyptian belief that a pair of dogs guarded the gates to the underworld, instead.
Though it's plausible that either of these tales might truly be where the phrase originated, there is no source material that we can find to corroborate them.
So much of history has been passed down orally, and countless written texts lost to antiquity that it shouldn’t surprise us (yet it does) that the very earliest use of “gone to the dogs” in print dates only back to the mid-16th century of our current era.
The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first known use of the figurative term to be in 1556, in the book, A Short Treatise on Political Power, by Patrick S. Poole:
“Away with these deceivers of my people to the dogs of Hell, you were masters, and not ministers…”
One Stop English
Oxford English Dictionary
Poole's A Short Treatise on Political Power
The Japan Times