Variations: the hair of the dog that bit you/me
Origin: Ordering “hair of the dog” from a bartender paints quite a memorable picture. The story behind this phrase is a curious tale indeed (pun intended).
Curing a malady with its cause is nothing new. In ancient times, the “Father of Western medicine,” Hippocrates (460-370 BC) advocated similia similibus curantor meaning “like cures like” to treat certain ailments. Romans who drank excessive amounts of wine at Bacchic toga parties presumably visited Hippocrates the next day, whining about their horrible hangovers. The good doctor simply prescribed drinking more wine.
Let’s fast forward to northern Syria, to the ancient port city of Ugarit (now Ras Shamra) in the period between 2000 and 100o BC. Perhaps in a state of inebriation rivaling those of the rowdy Romans (or perhaps rabies-induced dementia), the people of Ugarit believed that the cure for a hangover involved the placement of hair from a dog. Ugarit was home to many extensive libraries. Modern excavations in the area uncovered hundreds of clay tablets, including many important mythological test, written in Sumerian, Hurrian, Akkadian and Ugartic. One tablet (‘Ilu On A Toot) contains the first recorded use of “hair of the dog.” The text describes how the god ‘ilu, treats a horrible hangover by applying a salve of plant, hair of dog, and olive oil, to his forehead.
Like a pernicious STD, this unusual but effective remedy must have passed on from drunkard to drunkard, in bars all across the Middle East and Europe, landing on the shores of Great Britain. The phrase must have been used all the way up to the 1500s, when it finally made its way into print. The Oxford English Dictionary notes the first written usage in poet and writer John Heywood’s entertaining collection of proverbs (The Proverbs of John Heywood) published in 1546: “I pray three let me and my fellow have a hair of the dog that bit us last night.”
Incidentally, the cure for the bite of a rabid dog is described in great detail in Sir John and Mary Kedermister’s beautiful illuminated 500-page manuscript, Pharmacopolium or a booke of Medicine, (essentially, an encyclopedia of herbal remedies) published in 1630. The treatment “for the biting of madd dogg” is ““Take Liver, lightes and hearte of the dogg and boyle them very drye, and let the partie eate some of it, and beate some of it to powder and lett him drincke of it, until three Changes of the moone be past; and fill the wound with the Hayre of the Dogg until the ranckling of the Sore bee past, then annoynt it with Sallett oyle to get out the Haire, Then you must applie some good Salve unto it to heale it.”
Over time, the expression was shortened from “hair of the dog that bit you” to simply “hair of the dog.” The expression was included in Ebenezer Brewer’s seminal Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in 1898.
For further reading: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable by John Ayto
Ritual and Cult at Ugarit by Dennis Pardee (2002)