Monday, September 29, 2008

Apple #343: Underdog

There have been lots of exciting upsets this past weekend. In football, Michigan beat Wisconsin in an absolutely astonishing fourth quarter comeback, 27-25. In Formula One racing, Fernando Alonso, who started 15th out of 20 drivers, zipped up to the front of the pack and won the first night-time race at Singapore. And in baseball, the Milwaukee Brewers beat the Chicago Cubs to edge past the New York Mets for the wildcard spot in playoffs for the World Series.

So this suite of upsets has me thinking about underdogs.

Screen shot from Hoosiers, perhaps the underdog sports movie of all time.
(Photo from ESPN, which has a blow-by-blow of, what else, watching the movie. And here's the definition of Hoosier)

  • The term means "the beaten dog in a fight."
  • This definition is sort of interesting because usually, one decides that one is rooting for the underdog before the contest begins, or even as it's going on and it looks like one competitor is about to get trounced. But this definition says that the underdog is one who has already been beaten.
  • So I would amend this definition, actually. I think that the reason people root for the so-called underdog is because they hold out hope that the competitor who is currently behind and maybe even hurting could still win. They're hoping that the one who is behind will not end up being the underdog but will in the end turn out to be the top dog.
  • There's also a story that gets floated around about how people used to saw logs over a pit, using a two-person saw. One guy stood on top of the log and worked his end of the saw while another guy stood in the bottom of the pit and worked his end. Supposedly, the guy on top of the log was called the "top dog" and the guy in the pit was called the "under dog."

How the saw pit worked, where there may or may not have been a top dog and and under dog.
(Image from The Phrase Finder)

  • That's the story, but nobody can find any reference to those terms being used in conjunction with any description of that method of sawing logs. I've mentioned the story here because some sites toss that story around as if it's undisputed fact. It might actually be fact, but it's in dispute because there isn't very good evidence for it.
  • I was going to list some famous underdog sports movies, but then I realized that pretty much every sports movie except for maybe Brian's Song is an underdog story. Rocky, Hoosiers, The Karate Kid, even Slap Shot (Paul Newman, RIP).
  • Here's a bit of verse from 1859 written in honor of the under dog. Please notice that this guy says that he doesn't care which of the two competitors is right, only that he's going to pick the one who's not the favorite. Which is just as arbitrary a way to choose which competitor to support as is supporting the one everybody else thinks is going to win.
The Under Dog In The Fight
I know that the world, the great big world,
From the peasant up to the king,
Has a different tale from the tale I tell,
And a different song to sing.
But for me - and I care not a single fig
If they say I am wrong or right wrong,
I shall always go for the weaker dog,
For the under dog in the fight.
I know that the world, that the great big world,
Will never a moment stop.
To see which dog may be in the fault,
But will shout for the dog on top.
But for me I shall never pause to ask
Which dog may be in the right
For my heart will hear, while it beats at all.
For the under dog in the fight.
Perchance what I've said I had better not said,
Or 'there better I had said it incog.
But with my heart and with glass filled up to the brim
Here's health to the bottom dog.
--David Barker, 1859
  • Incog. Way to work that rhyme, Mr. Barker. Hmm, as I type this, it occurs to me that "Barker" is most likely a pseudonym. Clever incog, that is. Har!


Now I want to get literal about the "dog" part of the term. People talk a lot about the hierarchy of dog packs, so is there an underdog in a pack of dogs? Is that underdog as easy to spot as the alpha dog is?
  • In a pack of dogs, there is a pretty strong social hierarchy. They live by this hierarchy, and they are the most comfortable when everybody knows what their place is and they all stick to what they're supposed to do in their roles.
  • The leader of the pack is the alpha dog -- usually the biggest and strongest dog or the most assertive. The second-in-command is the beta dog. Depending on how many dogs are in the pack, you can name them successively for the subsequent letters of the Greek alphabet.
  • The last dog in the pack is named for the last letter of the Greek alphabet: the omega dog.
  • One site that gives advice for dog owners says that people tend to "root for the underdog" so dog owners who have several dogs may try to be extra-affectionate to the omega dog out of pity. But the alpha dog will see this and start to feel anxious about his position, and so to re-assert his dominance he will pick a fight with the omega dog to put him back in his place.
  • How can you tell which one is the omega dog?
  1. Always gives up first in a tug-of-war or other struggle.
  2. Gives attention or affection to other dogs first, especially by licking around their mouths.
  3. Looks away when other dogs or people try to make eye contact.

The little dog on its back is showing the larger dog that it is subordinate. Of the two dogs, that would be the omega dog. And actually, the guy lying on the ground is acting like a subordinate dog, too. I think Cesar Millan, who always advocates that people should be "calm, assertive pack leaders" would say that's not a good idea.
(Photo from The Fun Times Guide to Dogs)

  • In order to make sure you're not rooting for your omega dog and actually making life worse for him or her, the best thing to do is make sure your alpha dog gets everything -- food, toys, affection, etc. -- first, and the omega dog gets all that stuff last. It may not seem fair to you, but the dogs will all be much happier. Sarah Anderson at the Canine College of California has many more helpful tips on this subject.


No discussion of underdogs would be complete without mentioning Underdog, the cartoon TV show.
  • Underdog is a "humble shoeshine boy" (actually a dog) who can turn himself into a superhero, in this case, Underdog. His name when he is not Underdog is simply Shoeshine Boy.
  • The most important thing about Underdog is that he is not fancy, or extra suave or especially smart, or even especially strong. In fact, sometimes he starts to feel a little wobbly, at which point he must open his ring and take his vitamin pill for extra energy.
  • He must often fly to the rescue of his one true love, TV reporter Sweet Polly Purebred. She of course manages to get herself into all sorts of jams. When she cries out, "Oh where, oh where has my Underdog gone?" Underdog's superior canine ears hear her cries, in response to which he dashes into a nearby phone booth to transform himself into Underdog. "Have no fear, Underdog is here!"

Shoeshine Boy running to turn himself into Underdog and save Sweet Polly Purebred
(Image from Patrick Bowsley's Cartoon Art blog)

  • And -- I forgot this -- he rhymes.
  • Underdog's nemeses were a pinstripe-suit wearing mafia wolf named Riff Raff, and an evil scientist named Simon Bar Sinister, who sounds remarkably like Lionel Barrymore in his later years.
  • The best, though, is the chorus of the Underdog theme song:
Speed of lightning, roar of thunder
Fighting all who rob or plunder:
Underdog! Underdog!

If you want to see part of an episode, here's Part IV of The Forget-Me-Net

Something sort of existential is happening in this episode. The people of Washington have forgotten who Underdog is, and who they are. Once they're reminded of Underdog's identity, they remember their own.

Of course I find it highly significant that it is the alphabet that helps to break the curse.

Online Etymology Dictionary, underdog
The Phrase Finder, Top dog
Susan Daffron, Retaining Pack Harmony, Pet Tails
Canine Social Structure,
Sarah Anderson, Two or More Dogs, Canine College of California
IMDB, Underdog
Toon Tracker, Underdog
DJ Clawson's Underdog Home Page


  1. I'm going to name my kid "Alice Ampersand."

    Hoosiers: The. Best. Movie. Ever.

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