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Let's Reminisce: Dogs and cats in popular culture
By Jerry Lincecum
Nov 28, 2017
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Recently I read a book that made me reflect on the many ways we rely on  animal-related words, phrases and expressions in our everyday conversations and also our literature.  Author Boze Hadleigh gave his book a very colorful title: Holy Cow: Doggerel, Catnaps, Scapegoats, Foxtrots and Horsefeathers—Splendid Animal Words and Phrases.  His careful detective work brought to my mind dozens of animal terms that I have been using since childhood and he traced their origins.  I can fill this column by reviewing just a few of the most interesting ones about cats and dogs.

Our popular culture is filled with comic cats in all shapes, sizes and temperaments.  There were cat-and-mouse cats, like Jerry’s Tom, and cat-and-bird cats such as Sylvester (with a lisp), obsessed with capturing Tweety Bird.  In the early 20th century Felix the Cat was internationally famous.  More recently Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat was followed by Fritz the Cat, Heathcliff, Garfield, and Hello Kitty.  Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Broadway musical “Cats” was so popular there was talk of making it into a TV cartoon series.

 

On the internet images and videos of domestic cats make up some of the most viewed content on the web, to the extent that cats have been designated the “unofficial mascot of the Internet.”   One scientific study summed it up this way: “Cats as human companions are now sharing not only people's real life but also their virtual world.” One explanation suggests that the positive psychological effects that pet animals have on their owners also holds true for cat images viewed online.  Some individual cats, such as Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub, have achieved popularity online because of their unusual appearances.  Look them up on Wikipedia if you’re interested.

 

Switching to dogs, let’s start with some examples of mascots used to advertise products.  As a child I once traveled by bus from Houston to Lake Jackson to spend a week with relatives.  I was intrigued by the image of a sleek Greyhound painted on the side of the bus.  Hadleigh tells us that when the first Greyhound Bus began running in the Midwest in 1914 it was painted gray because any other color would look dirty after hours on the road.  When somebody remarked that the bus looked like a Greyhound dog streaking across the prairie, the company’s founder chose the slogan “Ride the Greyhound” and adopted the fast-running animal as its symbol.

 

Dalmatians were an important mascot for fire departments in the days before their vehicles were motorized.  Running ahead of horse-drawn firefighters, these excitedly barking dogs would clear the way for them to reach fires as quickly as possible.  Some firehouses still keep Dalmatians as mascots.

 

A quite different kind of dog was chosen by the Wolverine Shoe and Tanning Co. when they introduced a line of soft-soled shoes called Hush Puppies.  They adopted the placid Basset hound to suggest both quiet and suppleness, and their shoe became very popular.  Finding them very comfortable, I myself bought several pairs back in the 70s.

 

Southerners are well acquainted with the term “hush puppy” in a different context, as a fried cornmeal biscuit traditionally served with catfish.  A common explanation for the name is that hunters or fishermen cooking supper on the campfire would toss their dogs some fried cornbread to quiet them, often adding “Hush, puppy.”  Sorry, Mr. Hadleigh, I enjoyed your book, but that explanation is one I find a little hard to believe.

 

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories.  Email him at jlincecum@me.com.