Supporting the underdog explanation

Love the underdog

Australians love the underdog, the person expected to lose a contest, game or struggle. We identify with the dogged determination of the humble triumphing over the over-hyped and spoilt favourite. Both sides of politics claim to be the underdog leading up to an election because they fear that being favourite will lose them votes.

With Australian international sport in its current poor state (this was written in 2013), our sportsmen now have the consolation of being the underdogs to the arrogant, un-gentlemanly (according to Geoffrey Boycott) English cricketers and to the rampaging, arrogant All Blacks.

We all know the meaning of the word but its origin is contested. I was reminded of the word when reading the background chapter of a renovation book. It mentioned a plasterer in the mid nineteenth century who was forced to work as an underdog when there was a recession in the building industry.

Bottom sawyer as underdog

The author was referring to an underdog as the lower man of the two that operate a long pit saw. Before mechanical saws were widespread, planks were cut by hand. The log was placed over a pit and held in place by metal spikes called dogs (a common word for mechanical devices for gripping, and one assumes based on the idea of dogs jaws clamping closed on something). The log was cut by a long saw operated by two men, the senior one above the log who steered the saw and the other under the log who provided the reverse force. The underdog was therefore the mug who has to go into the pit, does equal the work and gets covered in sawdust while the overdog (or top dog) stays in the light and controls the saw.

This saw-dust covered and slightly oppressed worker makes a wonderful and completely feasible origin for the word, underdog. However, this is not supported by the records other than my source. The usual terms for the men were top sawyer and bottom sawyer.

Fighting dog as underdog

Internet sources suggest that the word comes from either of two blood sports: dog fighting or bear baiting. The dogfight explanation has the winning dog as the top dog and the losing dog, because it ends up underneath, as the underdog. Wikipedia (unsupported by any references) suggests it comes from bear-baiting where a team of two dogs attacks the bear: the top-dog was trained to attack the bear’s throat and head, and the underdog was trained to attack the bear’s underside. The underdog supposedly was more likely to be killed.

Where is the overdog?

I am finding it hard to accept the dog-fighting explanation because top dog and underdog aren’t a pair. It doesn’t ring true. For instance a good dog pair are the constellations Canis Major and Canis Minor, from Latin for big dog and little dog.

In the same way top and bottom is a pair and over and under are also a match. Therefore the opposite of an underdog is an overdog. A top dog is not compatible with an underdog but with a bottom dog. I came across this verse by Robert Frost, which supports this pair idea:

I’m a poor underdog
But tonight I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.

The final explanation

So I am going to continue to support the saw pit explanation for underdog—that it comes from the term for the poor bloke getting covered in sawdust—even although I can’t prove it.