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“Underdog”
Possible origins of the term
Are we underdogs again?

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.

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.

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