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It’s March Madness, which means that in our house, as well as countless other houses nationwide with people following the NCAA Basketball tournament, things are just a little exciting and crazy. People are speaking differently, with phrases such as “exceeding expectations,” “early foul trouble,” “3-pointer at the buzzer,” “tough matchup” and “leading scorer” replacing much of normal conversation.
Serious basketball fans and those who just watch hoops three weeks out of each year alike share the refrain, “My bracket is a disaster!” The most common phrase of the sportswriter crowd is perhaps “underdogs to root for.” How, exactly, did the term “underdog” come to mean the competitor who is least likely to win?
One theory is that it relates to the practice of sawing wooden planks by hand, which was done by two men using a two-man saw. One man stood on top of the wood in the preferred position while the other stood below in a much less comfortable position in the pit. The iron supports that held the wood were referred to as “dogs,” which has led people to suppose that this situation is the origin of the terms “top dog” and “underdog.” However, there is no evidence whatsoever to support this otherwise lovely theory. There are no written references to either of these terms in the context of sawing wood until after mechanical sawing was the norm.
Another possibility is that the term originates in the world of dog fighting, with the losing dog literally being under the winner at the end of a fight. People who took bets on the fights kept track of a dog’s previous fights, and used the label “underdog” for the dog who was more likely to be beaten in an upcoming fight between two particular dogs.