Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Episode 171: Let Sleeping Dogs Lie Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 171: Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Record Date: October 14, 2022

Air Date: October 26, 2022



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

If dogs are supposed to be man’s best friend, and dogs are often portrayed in the English speaking world as lovable and faithful companions, then why also do we say we should let sleeping dogs lie? Why not just wake them up? That’s one question I intend to answer right now. 


Let’s start off with our definition. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to let sleeping dogs (or a sleeping dog) lie means: 


to avoid provoking or interfering in a situation that is currently causing no problems but may well do so as a result of such interference

End Quote

As I mentioned at the top, in much of the English speaking world, dogs are seen as a faithful companion and often called “Man’s best friend”. So why do we have an idiom that indicates waking a sleeping dog might be bad for us? 

For that, I’ll turn to Bernadette Paton writing for the Oxford English Dictionary, 16 August 2012 in a piece that addresses this very subject called, The dog: man’s best friend?


The history of man’s relationship with the domesticated carnivorous mammal Canis familiaris is a long and complex one, and is reflected in the language used across the centuries to describe the dog and its world. The word dog first occurs in Old English, but is less well-attested than the synonymous (and probably more formal and literary) hound, although it may have been common in non-literary and spoken contexts…

…Before the eighteenth century, dogs … were usually kept not as household pets but for hunting, working, or guarding, and the language used to describe them often reflects this. In the oldest proverbs and phrases dogs are rarely depicted as faithful or as man’s best friend, but as vicious, ravening, or watchful. To throw or cast someone to the dogs (from 1556) is to send them to destruction or ruin, as is the later and now more common to go to the dogs (from 1619).

End Quote 

Her’s is a fascinating article and we’ll link to it on the Show Notes, which are always available for free at

I followed her lead and looked for our variants on our phrase involving hound instead of dog, and that led me to Geoffrey Chaucer’s work Troilus and Criseyde, published circa 1386. 

Circa, if you are not familiar, comes from Latin and means around or about. It is commonly used in English with dates. So in this case, circa 1386 means it was written around 1386. 

Here we go.


It is nought good a sleeping hound to wake

End Quote

So the idea of sleeping hounds being something to be left alone has been around for a long time. Probably longer than the late 1300s, but that’s when we first see it written in English. 

Some have made the claim the Bible also has an early reference, so I will include Wycliffe and Purvey’s translation here, which was likely written in the late 1300s, around the same time as Troilus and Criseyde. I’ll read from Terence P. Noble’s modern-spelling edition of the 14th Century middle English translation. This is from the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 26, verse 17. 


As he that taketh a dog by the ears; so he that passeth, and is impatient, and is meddled with the chiding of another man

End Quote

I can see the concept here. I’m not certain that it fits. Later versions definitely make it seem like it fits, but it is hard to tell for me as I’m not a biblical scholar. But, I did think it’s better to include it for your consideration. 

Here are a few more examples of the early phrase.

Alexander Leighton, 1624

And another, this one from John Ray - 1670

The first time I found the phrase in print in our current format was from a Scottish newspaper. 

You’ll notice the paper says it is an old phrase. So it’s been around in the spoken word for a long time before we see it written here. From there we see it used in a variety of examples, like this one from James Hogg in 1818. 

One last thing before we continue to our modern uses. I found a few things online that attributed a similar phrase to Admiral Yamamoto of the Japanese forces after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. But there are few points I want to make about that.

The phrase in question is: 


I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve

End Quote

Similar in point, for sure. But uses “giant” instead of “dog”. There is no evidence that Admiral Yamamoto ever said that. The quote comes from the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora!. 

Additionally, In William Safire’s book, Safire’s Political Dictionary, he quotes Vermot Royster that Napoleon spoke to Lord Amherst in 1816 saying, “China is a sickly, sleeping giant. But when she awakes the world will tremble.” 

There you go, a quick bonus note about sleeping giants instead of sleeping dogs. But the concept is roughly the same. And now, a thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon.

You can help support this educational artform and get awesome perks along the way! Tiers start at $3 a month, which get you our polls and community-only discussions, early access to the podcast, and the behind the scenes video for each episode so you can watch along as we make the show. 

At $10 you’ll also get original digital artwork from Shauna once a month featuring exclusive art about an idiom or other turn of phrase. At $15, you’ll also get personal on-air recognition like Pat Rowe does every episode. And of course huge thanks goes to the top spot among our Patrons, our Dean of Learning, Mary Halsig-Lopez. Thank you so much to Mary and all of our patrons. 

If you want to help create Bunny Trails week after week, whatever your budget, we are bunnytrailspod on Patreon. 


Modern Uses

1977 Movie

Let’s start us off with a movie from 1977 out of New Zealand called “Sleeping Dogs”. It stars a young Sam Neill (who you may know from Jurassic Park) as a man trying to live out his life in solitude and peace after his marriage falls apart. It is based on the 1971 book Smith’s Dream by C.K. Stead. Here is a quick overview from a particularly good Wikipedia entry. 


A political thriller with action film elements, it follows the lead character "Smith"... as New Zealand plunges into a police state as a fascist government institutes martial law after industrial disputes flare into violence. Smith gets caught between the special police and a growing resistance movement, and reluctantly becomes involved. Often named one of the best New Zealand films of all time, it is considered a classic and a landmark in the new wave of cinema in the country, helping to change New Zealand cinema from small, melodramatic, derivative films to the modern reels that make the country known in the industry today

End Quote

I’ll link to the trailer on the Patreon, and of course the show notes as well. The trailer starts with the narrator saying:


What happens when an ordinary man is pushed to his limit? And how much does it take before a man says no.

End Quote 

Sam Neill's character here is clearly the titular sleeping dog that is awakened in the movie.

1991 Movie

Where Sleeping Dogs Lie is a 1991 American neo noir thriller film directed by Charles Finch. It has a stellar cast, including Dylan McDermott, Tom Sizemore, and Sharon Stone. Unfortunately, it only has a 19% on Rotten Tomatoes, so it might not be that good. I watched the trailer on youtube and… woof. It looks like it was made in the early 90s. 

1991 Movie

Let’s look at another 1991 movie, An American Tale: Fievel Goes West. This one has a memorable scene where Fievel Mousekewitz, a Jewish-Ukranian mouse who has emigrated to the American Wild West, is looking for Wylie Burp, the famed Sheriff. He runs into an old, worn out dog and realizes this is Wylie Burp. Wylie is voiced by the legendary James Stewart. This quick dialogue has several idiomatic phrases, starting with 


Fievel: Wylie Burp, Sheriff? Wow! We need you, Sheriff Burp! The cats are gonna turn us into mouse burgers! You gotta help us now!

Wylie: Let this sleeping dog lie, son. Doggone it, I'm dog tired. I'm tired of leading a dog's life, and fighting like cats and dogs against cats and dogs, and young pups dogging my trail, trying to become top dog. I'm going to the dogs in a dog-eat-dog world, son. I'm... I'm so far over the hill, I'm on the bottom of the other side.

End Quote 

2006 Movie

The 2006 movie Sleeping Dogs Lie, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, stars Melinda Page Hamilton as a woman whose life is ruined when she confesses her darkest secret to her fiance. This dark romantic comedy then follows her as she searches for happiness. 

2012 Video Game

In 2012, the video game Sleeping Dogs was released. It has a prolonged development, which started in 2008. Here is an overview from Wikipedia.


Sleeping Dogs is an open world and martial arts action-adventure video game developed by United Front Games and published by Square Enix's European subsidiary. It was originally released for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows in 2012. Set in contemporary Hong Kong, the single player story follows martial artist and undercover police officer Wei Shen who infiltrates the Sun On Yee Triad organization. Gameplay focuses on Wei Shen's martial arts moves, fighting, shooting and parkour abilities, and on gadgets that can be used for combat and exploration. Players must complete missions to unlock content and continue the story, but they may instead freely roam the game's open world environment and engage in both legal and criminal activities.

End Quote 

The video game has spurred talk of a live-action movie starring Donnie Yen. Yen spoke in 2021 with about the possibility of the movie getting made:


I'm still hopeful. I mean, every day they tell me it's going to happen. I'm co-producing and collaborating with [producers] Neil Moritz and Toby [Ascher], with their company, and currently talking with a couple of big platforms. And they tell me every single day it's going to happen, so we'll see. Like I said, I believe in destiny. So, if it's going to happen, hopefully, it will happen the first half of next year.

End Quote

According to, pre-production is expected in 2022 but has not started yet. 

2016 Song

Let’s go to a song next, this one by Zakk Wylde. He is best known as the lead guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne as well as the lead guitarist and lead singer for the heavy metal band Black Label Society.  In 2016 he released his second album called Book of Shadows II. The first single released was Sleeping Dogs. Here are the opening lyrics.


You couldn't find your peace

Within the bitterness that burns

For the Sleeping Dogs that lie

Forever to return, forever to return

End Quote

It’s a pretty dark and bloody music video, but the music is a mix of metal and country with some bluegrass and classic rock vibes. I actually really enjoyed his voice and the music. The video wasn’t my thing, I don’t like scary movies or horror stuff or anything like that because I’m just a big scaredy cat or something. 

2021 Audiobook

Samantha Downing wrote a novella called Sleeping Dogs Lie, which was published as an Audible Original in 2021. Here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:


Shelby works as a dog walker in Northern California, and she’s just finished up her biweekly trip to the park with a husky named Pluto. When she brings him back to his house, she finds his owner—Todd Burke, a well-known local businessman and founder of an organic supplements company—dead on the bathroom floor. As a detective interviews Shelby, a medical examiner inspects the body, and more cops search Todd’s home, it becomes clear that the victim’s life was less picture-perfect than his clean-cut persona might lead you to believe.

End Quote

Wrap Up

I like this phrase, let sleeping dogs lie, because it serves as a cautionary moment for deciding if you really want to move out of the status quo and bring something potentially paradigm shifting into the equation. For people who like to stay in the status quo, this is a phrase warning others not to mess with the situation. But for those of us who like to upset the status quo with some frequency, it is simply a check mark along the way. Do I want to wake up the sleeping dog? Check yes or no. Sometimes I feel just fine with not causing problems in that area, so I’ll let that dog sleep. And other times, I’m ready to cry havoc and awaken those dogs. We probably need a healthy dose of both in our lives, depending on the moment. I suppose that might be why they say that discretion is the better part of valor. You gotta know which one to choose and when. 


That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


It’s poll time!

Recently we asked our patrons, “If you could go back and do high school all over again, having all the lessons you've learned since, would you?”

60% of our Patrons said yes, 40% passing on the opportunity.

Jan said


This one took me a while. I almost picked 'no' because who wants to go back and do homework again? I'm no better at math in my 40s than I was in HS, so that would suck. I picked yes because I'd know what was going to happen in the 2020s and could prepare for it and maybe à la Biff Tannen, have some future sports/events betting knowledge to amass enough money to pay off my eventual student loans.

End Quote

Charlie added


Yes. Absolutely. I’d go back and get myself diagnosed with ADHD 25 years earlier and maybe do better in college as well. 😂 I’m super happy with my people and my life, I wouldn’t change much, but it would be nice to have had a chance to succeed in the system we have.  

End Quote


As I mentioned on the Patreon, I think I’d have to pass. I while I would do things differently if I ran into the situation again, everything I’ve done has brought me to who I am and where my life is. And I have it pretty good. I’m happy with my life and who is in my life with me. I’d be too afraid of messing that up. But if you ask me that question when I’m in my 90s and nearing death, it might be a different answer.

Our Dean of Learning Mary bridged the gap quite nicely, I think.


I would go back and do all the musicals all over again. I am with Dan, though. I sure wouldn't want to take the chance of losing the family I have. They are much too precious.

End Quote


As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!



Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember, 


Words belong to their users. 

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