The Grammarphobia Blog

Curbing your dog

Q: Can you explain why signs all over New York City say “Curb Your Dog,” meaning clean up after it? I hope I’m not missing an obvious explanation for this.

A: The short message conveyed by the words “Curb Your Dog” is “Take your dog to the curb.”  That’s the literal meaning. But the longer message, at least since the 1970s, has been “Take your dog to the curb, where it will presumably do its business in the street, after which you will pick up any solid matter and dispose of it.”

The signs began appearing in the late 1930s (minus the implied pickup and disposal message) in an effort to get New Yorkers to comply with a section of the municipal Health Code that requires dog owners to keep their pets from soiling sidewalks, stairways, and other public places.

The language sleuth Barry Popick, in a posting to his Big Apple website, cites two early published references to the signs from 1937, including this one from the New York Times:

“In an effort to train dog owners to observe the sanitation laws, the Department of Sanitation has posted some twenty-five signs bearing the legend ‘Please Curb Your Dog’ at points about the city.”

In 1978, the New York State Legislature adopted the Canine Waste Law, commonly known as the “pooper-scooper law,” which requires dog owners in the state’s larger cities to clean up after their pets, not just take them to the curb.

Since then, San Francisco, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Palm Springs, Stamford, and other cities have adopted similar legislation.

In case you’re interested, the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for “pooper-scooper,” which it defines as “an implement for picking up and removing litter or mess, esp. for cleaning up dog excrement.”

The earliest citation in the OED for the term is from the Aug. 28, 1956, issue of the Official Gazette of the US Patent Office: “Super Dooper Pooper Scooper.”

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