I wanted to share with you, what I thought was some, Stephen Fry – QI style, wood related trivia. That is that the terms Top Dog and Underdog have their origins in the old school method of cutting planks from a log!
When I started re-researching, (as I can’t remember where I heard it from) some quick googling soon suggested that this, wood related, explanation of the origins of Top Dog and Underdog, might, in fact, be fictitious! So apologies to the people who I have already misled with this apparent true fact! Whilst I am clearly not an Etymologist, I do quite like the woody explanation to their origins and anyway it’s interesting to learn how wood was cut back in the day! So here goes…
To convert large round logs into squared planks and boards, without some sort of machine, you will need a big saw and a lot of muscle power! Back in the day, when big machines weren’t around, logs were placed over a saw pit, with one chap (the ‘Underdog’) stood in the bottom of the pit and another (the ‘Top Dog’) stood on top of the log, they each held onto one end of the big saw, and away they went!
This photo is from a fantastic book, “Woodland Crafts In Britain” by H.L. Edlin. Published by B.T. Batsford Ltd in 1949. – isn’t eBay brilliant!
The big scary saw had a T-shaped upper handle, suitably called the tiller, as the chap stood on top had the job of steering the saw in a straight line. While the poor fellow underneath was subjected to a constant rain of sawdust and the apparent risk of the log falling on top of him!
It appears that the more realistic origin of these terms comes from the sport of dog fighting. Even my book refers to the men working the saw pit as the top sawyer and the pitman. Nevertheless it is fascinating to learn how planks were won from round logs and to realise just how easy we have it nowadays!