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Where the black dog metaphor for depression comes from

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The black dog, that puzzling mental-health metaphor, harks back to one of English literature’s heavyweights.

The idea for this column comes from a conversation with a few of my colleagues on a project looking at pet ownership and mental health.

To cut to the chase, the topic of animals and metaphor came up. Metaphors are very useful tools when we’re teaching, because they help make sense of things in a way that people can relate to. In therapy, they can provide a vocabulary for talking about something while not talking about that thing. Some strands of talk-therapy draw very heavily off a suite of metaphors that can describe where people are, where they are going and how they get there.

Here’s a pretty common mental-health metaphor: the black dog. It’s also the name of a Wellington brewery that features playful titles for its beverages such as Pug Life and Mangoes into a Bar. It’s also the name of a Led Zeppelin song, a security company, and adorns the entrances of numerous cafes, bars and restaurants around the world.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

It’s also a metaphor for depression. If you search for “black dog” on Amazon books, you get more than 30,000 hits. Admittedly, around 3000 of them appear to be books about, well, dogs, but, at a rough estimate, about the same number are related to depression. That’s a pretty pervasive cultural notion.

Winston Churchill’s name frequently comes up as the originator of this metaphor. Churchill is quoted as having speculated that therapy might be helpful for him “if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now – it is such a relief. All the colours come back into the picture.”

There’s a fair bit of speculation about whether Churchill evidenced a psychiatric diagnosis, and then what diagnosis that might be. Candidates bandied about include both major depression and bipolar disorder (the diagnosis formerly known as manic depression). Regardless, Churchill’s name comes up a lot in the context of “black dogs”.

Then I found Paul Foley’s essay “Black dog” as a metaphor for depression: a brief history. What an interesting read. In this literary whodunit, Foley goes in search of the origins of the term, starting with Churchill. He cites Churchill’s private secretary, John Colville, as outing Churchill’s nanny as the progenitor of the phrase and suggesting that it wasn’t an uncommon idiom among the Mary Poppins circle. But where did they get it from?

Foley takes us back to ancient Rome to test claims that our black dog of melancholy predates Jesus. The answer, he suggests, is no and that the confusion arises out of dodgy translation and interpretation. Roman poet Horace’s lines, “In vain: the black dog follows you and hangs/ Close on your flying skirts with hungry fangs” should read “dark companion” instead of “black dog”.

Indeed, although there are many literary allusions to black dogs – even Shakespeare makes a reference – these rarely reference melancholy or depression pre-1800s. In fact, dogs have, historically, been well thought of, symbolising all manner of positive attributes. Even those relatively rare negatives tend not to focus on moodiness.

Foley calls us all into the parlour and points directly at Samuel Johnson, author of the first dictionary (played for laughs by Robbie Coltrane in the excellent Blackadder the Third), as the culprit. He quotes letters written by Johnson in the late 1700s that clearly associate “the black dog” with mood in lines such as, “when he comes the first thing he does is to worry my master”. The trail dries up at this point – it’s not obvious what might have inspired him, and the leading candidates lead down dead ends. Samuel Johnson it is then.

This article was first published in the November 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.