Where the black dog metaphor for depression comes from

by Marc Wilson / 29 November, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Black dog depression

Photo/Getty Images

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.

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.


Michael Moore takes on Trump with fire and fury in Fahrenheit 11/9
100230 2018-12-12 00:00:00Z Movies

Michael Moore takes on Trump with fire and fury in…

by James Robins

The conflagration that gave the US President Trump is traced to September 2001.

Read more
10 ideas for the perfect summer Christmas menu
100210 2018-12-12 00:00:00Z Food

10 ideas for the perfect summer Christmas menu

by Lauraine Jacobs

Seafood stars in the entrée courses before turkey takes centre stage, with all the trimmings, to be followed by a fantastic fruity pudding.

Read more
How Whangārei became New Zealand's home of jugger
99256 2018-12-12 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

How Whangārei became New Zealand's home of jugger

by Michael Botur

On every second Sabbath, grown men and women armed with foam chase a dog skull around Whangārei’s Kensington Park.

Read more
New Zealand's silent Pasifika mental health crisis
100357 2018-12-11 17:18:21Z Health

New Zealand's silent Pasifika mental health crisis…

by Indira Stewart

What do you do if your culture treats mental illness like a curse? Bury it deep.

Read more
The smart speaker with a screen: How does the Amazon Echo Show stack up?
100317 2018-12-11 15:10:01Z Tech

The smart speaker with a screen: How does the Amaz…

by Peter Griffin

A review of the Amazon Echo Show smart speaker.

Read more
Domestic violence: 'There's a huge amount of work that needs to be done' – PM
100265 2018-12-11 10:30:17Z Social issues

Domestic violence: 'There's a huge amount of work …

by RNZ

Grace Millane's death is a reminder of the work that needs to be done to reduce violence directed at women in this country, says the PM.

Read more
Finally, a trio of chunky referendum issues to spice up the next election
99872 2018-12-11 00:00:00Z Politics

Finally, a trio of chunky referendum issues to spi…

by Bevan Rapson

The possibility of Kiwis voting on three contentious issues – euthanasia, cannabis and an MMP shakeup – is like crowdsourcing political decisions.

Read more
The bullying allegations show that Parliament needs transparency
100228 2018-12-11 00:00:00Z Politics

The bullying allegations show that Parliament need…

by Bill Ralston

As a review stalks bullies in the corridors of power, Bill Ralston writes that abuse thrives in the darkness.

Read more