See a man about a dog and see a man about a horse are two versions of an idiom that came into use in the mid-1800s. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words, or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, in the same boat, bite the bullet, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the phrases see a man about a dog and see a man about a horse, where they came from, and some examples of their use in sentences.
The idioms see a man about a dog and see a man about a horse are phrases someone uses when excusing himself from polite company for a short time. Most often, see a man about a dog and see a man about a horse are euphemisms used when one is going to relieve himself at the toilet; however, they are sometimes used to mean that someone is going to buy alcohol or an alcoholic drink. A euphemism is a word or phrase that is used to indicate a concept that is embarrassing or otherwise too sensitive to refer to plainly and bluntly. The expression see a man about a dog was first used in the play The Flying Scud, which was written by Dion Boucicault in 1866. The phrase see a man about a horse came into use soon after as a variant.
My grandfather would join us after he been “to see a man about a dog”. (The Irish Times)
The 1920s was the era that utilized the powers of misdirection: “I have to go see a man about a dog” was code for “I’m going to go buy alcohol.” (The West Virginia Gazette Mail)
We’d be going along on the forest trail when all of a sudden John would veer off into the trees, saying, “I’m off to see a man about a horse.” (The Ventura County Reporter)
“I’m gonna have to see a man about a horse pretty soon.” (The Texas Standard)