What is an Underdog?

Leicester City shocked soccer fans around the world when they won the 2015/16 Premier League title. If you read any English-language websites, you may have seen their success described as the “greatest underdog story in sporting history.” But what is an underdog, and where does this strange word come from?

According to dictionary.com, an underdog is a person (or organisation) that is expected to lose an upcoming contest. The phrase under dog is believed to come from American English, and like many common two-word collocations, it soon became hyphenated as under-dog, before realising its current one-word form, underdog. The earliest usage of the word that I found was from April 1882, when The Popular Science Monthly uses it as a metaphor describing those with power and those without.

Underdog Etymology

The metaphor is quite a brutal one, but it makes the word easy to remember. Imagine a dog fight: if one dog is on top of the other, that dog is expected to win the fight. The dog underneath (aka the underdog) is probably going to lose. Leicester City were not expected to win the Premier League – in fact, many people predicted they would finish last – and thus the team was described as an underdog. Greece winning Euro 2004 was a similar underdog story (i.e. an unlikely victory), but bear in mind that these examples are the most memorable. Underdogs normally lose.

Top Dog Etymology

The same journal also coined another popular phrase: top dog. Whichever dog is currently winning the fight is referred to as the top dog, so we could say, “Although Leicester were heavy underdogs, they ended the season as top dog.” Whenever a person (or organisation) is number one, they can be described as top dog, as the following examples show:

  • “Samsung is top dog in the Korean business world.”
  • “Barack Obama is the top dog in American politics.”

Notice that you can add the before the phrase top dog, but often we leave it out. One final word of warning: I would be wary of using the phrase top dog to describe a woman. As noted in this post, it might offend some people.

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