What Does ‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’ Mean?

4 min read

Last Modified 19 October 2021 First Added 9 October 2021

By Liam Porter

Meaning:

‘Let sleeping dogs lie’ is the imperative form of a truism or proverb that dates back to the 13th century. The phrase is a request for a matter or incident to remain undiscussed or avoided, where addressing it might cause trouble.

Examples of use

  • Jenny and Breda had a falling out at your brother’s wedding, but we don’t talk about it now – better to let sleeping dogs lie.
  • There he goes, causing trouble again. Why can’t he just let sleeping dogs lie?

Origins:

The phrase ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ is likely attributable more to folk wisdom than to a single individual, though its evolution in various forms can be traced back to at least the medieval period, if not to earlier Latin proverbs.

There are several references in etymological discussions of the phrase, for example, to a text referred to as Proverbia Vulgalia et Latina which translates to ‘Common and Latin Proverbs’, but the text is all but impossible to find.

While we can’t confirm claims that the 13th century text lists ‘Ne reveillez pas le chien qui dort’ or ‘don’t wake the sleeping hound’ or the supposition that it may therefore originate from the Latin phrase ‘Quieta non movera’ or ‘don’t disturb things at peace’, we can say with reasonable certainty that the majority of sources discussing the phrase use a 2010 blog as their primary source.

It’s difficult, however, to agree with the supposition of that initial source, or that the root of the phrase lies in Proverbs (26:17) which reads:

He that passes by, and meddles with strife belonging not to him, is like one that takes a dog by the ears.

Beyond the mention of the dog, this would seem to be a more general, though not unconnected entreaty to avoid involving yourself in the trouble of others.

Herein lies the problem with the evolution of language – and especially idiomatic language. What we see in the biblical passage may well be what, in palaeontology, might be called a ‘transitional form’ – an intermediate version of what will become the phrase.

One early transitional form it’s possible to verify, however, is that in stanza 110, line 764 of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde:

It is not good a sleepynge hound to wake

Although taken from a poem of around 100 words by Chaucer, it must be noted that this is not evidence of his inventing such idioms – merely that Chaucer expected such a phrase to be understood by his audience.

As such, it’s reasonable to assume that the phrase, rather than originating with the publication of Troilus and Criseyde in around 1380, dates to at least the 14th century and likely evolved from earlier pieces of folk wisdom.

Notable appearances in popular culture:

The phrase ‘let sleeping dogs lie’, as with many aphorisms, has regularly found its way into creative works – whether that’s as a song title from former UFO and Scorpions guitarist Michael Schenker, or an episode of Only Fools and Horses, there are plenty of works of film, literature and music that feature the phrase in full or partially.

Trivia:

According to Ngram data from Google, the English-speaking world has seen a huge increase in the desire to grant drowsy dogs their repose since the turn of the century. Before this, it was most popular in the early 1930’s before a revival in the 1950s. The drop between those two decades is likely to do with WWII halting the publication of novels and other media forms.

For other well-known sleep idioms check out what ‘catch some Z’s‘, ‘sleep like a log‘, ‘sleeping with the fishes‘ or what waking up on ‘the wrong side of the bed’ means.

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