The Grammarphobia Blog

Running dogs of rhetoric

Q: In reading some of the old Cold War literature, I frequently come across the term “running dog” in reference to the Chinese disdain for America. What are its origins and implications?

A: The English term “running dog” has been around a lot longer than you might suspect—for hundreds of years before Mao Zedong was a gleam in his father’s eye.

When it first showed up in the early 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase referred to “an animal, esp. a dog: that is raised or kept for pursuing animals in the course of a hunt.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from A Helpe to Discourse (1619), a collection of miscellaneous writings of questionable authorship: Miso, because I hunted in his grounds / Let lose his running dogges, and baukt my hounds.”

The dictionary notes that a similar term, “running hound,” showed up a couple of centuries earlier.

In The Master of Game (1425), a book on hunting, Edward, Duke of York, writes about “rennyng houndis hunten in diuers maners” on the moors.

In fact, the OED says the use of the term “running dog” by the Communists is derived from zougou, a Chinese term for a hunting dog (from zou, to run, and gou, dog).

The dictionary says the Chinese used the term figuratively in the “18th cent. or earlier in political contexts” to refer to a “servile follower, lackey.”

In the 20th century, according to Oxford, the Chinese Communists used the term for “a person who is subservient  to a foreign power, esp. to one that threatens revolutionary interests.” Later, the dictionary notes, the Communists used the term in a “generalized” sense.

Interestingly, the OED’s earliest written example of the term used in the political sense is from an American newspaper in which the Chinese are referred to as “running dogs” of the Russians.

Here’s the citation, from the June 8, 1925, issue of the Los Angeles Times: “The Communists cry ‘overthrow imperialism,’ but they themselves are the running dogs of red Russian imperialists.”

The next Oxford example is from China: A Nation in Evolution (1928), by Paul Monroe: “The intelligent Chinese … may believe that missionaries in general are but the ‘running dogs’ … of the imperialistic business and political interests.”

The earliest example citing a Chinese source is from Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Volume IV (1961):

“Without a revolutionary party … it is impossible to lead the working class and the broad masses of the people in defeating imperialism and its running dogs.”

We’ll end with an example from The Honourable Schoolboy, a 1977 novel by John le Carré:

“Czarist imperialist running dogs drank tasteless coffee with divisive, deviationist, chauvinist Stalinists.”

Check out our books about the English language