Top dog is a term with murky origins. We will examine the definition of top dog, where this term came from and some examples of its use in sentences.
Top dog refers to someone who is at the top of the pecking order, someone who is dominant or at the apex of his field. The term top dog used as an idiom seems to only date back to the 1800s. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal meaning. Other terms such as over dog and upper dog were also in use, but they have fallen by the wayside. The term top dog seems to have evolved from the literal meaning of the phrase, describing the dog who is dominant in a pack or victorious in a dogfight. The plural form is top dogs.
The person who is the best at something, or who is in charge, is the top dog — whether its the most popular kid at school, a classroom teacher, or the President of the United States.
You may have heard the term underdog, or someone who is unlikely to win. The top dog is the opposite, and both come from dog fighting, in which one dog is victorious — the top dog — and the one on the bottom — the underdog — is the loser. Definitions of
It seems to date back to the 1800s, though it might’ve been used before that century without being mentioned in written records. There are a couple of popular explanations for why people started using “top dog” as a phrase. Chances are good that the first one that comes to mind for most people would be the idea of dogs existing within a dominance hierarchy.
However, it is often proposed that “top dog” comes from sawing. Specifically, people can put timber over a saw pit. Subsequently, two individuals can use a long, two-handled saw to produce planks from timber. The more senior individual would stand on top of the timber, while the less senior individual would stand at the bottom of the pit. Unsurprisingly, the latter had the more unpleasant position, not least because said individual would be sprayed with sawdust. Since the irons holding the timber in place were called dogs, these positions are one proposed origin for the phrases “top dog” and “underdog.”