Why Is Depression Sometimes Called “The Black Dog”?

Everyone from lexicographer Samuel Johnson to Prime Minister Winston Churchill has used the phrase—but how did it become a metaphor for depression?
Soldt/E+/Getty Images (dog), Jon Mayer/Mental Floss (thought bubble)

There’s an Irish saying used to describe someone who has it easy: tá saol an mhadaidh bháin agat, or “the life of the white dog.” In English, though, you might hear the black dog used as a metaphor for depression. The phrase has been employed by everyone from world leaders to lexicographers—but where does it come from? Why a black dog?

Black Dogs in Myth and Folklore

To figure out what black dogs have to do with depression, we first need to look at the creature’s role in myth and folklore.

In Greek mythology, Cerberus is sometimes described as the black, three-headed demon dog that patrols the house of Hades to stop the dead from escaping—devouring anyone foolish enough to try.

Hercules And Cerberus
Hercules And Cerberus. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

In 16th-century Britain, the black dog—under various guises but with similar intentions—was ubiquitous. The Black Shuck, for example, supposedly stalks the coastlines of Suffolk and East Anglia in search of human prey; according to legend, it went on a murderous rampage in two separate churches one stormy night in 1577.

With these examples in mind, it’s easy to see how the black dog—guard of hell, murderer of church-goers—could have bounded across myth and legend to lumber behind people dealing with depression (which can be its own kind of hell).

Historical Uses of The Black Dog

By some accounts, the black dog of depression was born almost 2000 (human) years ago in ancient Rome with the lyrical poet Horace (a.k.a. Quintus Horatius Flaccus), son of a former enslaved man and friend to emperor Augustus. Horace knew the importance of living in the moment: He coined the phrase carpe diem (“seize the day”) in his book Odes.

Horace, Quintus Horatius Flaccus
Horace. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

That’s not the only phrase he’s said to have created. According to an 1863 translation by John Conington, Horace wrote in Satires that “no company’s more hateful than your own … the black dog follows you, and hangs close on your flying skirts with hungry fangs.”

Modern scholars, however, have said that the Latin phrase Horace used is more accurately “dark companion” [PDF] and that Conington’s phrase was a mistranslation—which suggests the black dog was already in popular use at the time in his native England.

We could have a socialite and lexicographer to thank for that. Samuel Johnson is sometimes erroneously said to have compiled the first English dictionary in 1755, and he’s also credited with introducing the black dog to English readers—but it was really his friend, author and diarist Hester Thrale, who first referenced the black dog in her written correspondence with Johnson.

Mrs Thrale (Afterwards Piozzi)
Hester Thrale. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Though the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is one of Thrale’s diary entries from 1790, she was using the phrase with Johnson much earlier: “Mr. Thrale, thank God, is very comfortably set up again,” she wrote in one 1776 letter. “The last hard gale blew him almost down though … but he scorns the black dog now: he will swing him round and round.”

The black dog popped up frequently in their letters over the years. In one, Johnson tells Thrale he “hopes always to resist” the black dog and prays a mutual friend of theirs “will soon shake off the black dog, and come home light as a feather.”

But perhaps no one is more associated with the black dog than Winston Churchill, who was dealing with depression well before he became prime minister of Britain and took on the Nazis.

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill. / Keystone/GettyImages

In a 1911 letter to his wife, Clementine, Churchill expressed hope that a German doctor could be “useful to me” if “my black dog returns” (noting at the time of writing that the black dog was “quite away from me now”).

Though Churchill’s name often comes up in reference to the black dog, some argue that the phrase is “an expression of Victorian nannies to connote bad moods” and not a de facto self-diagnosis of mental health conditions. Churchill’s daughter, Lady Mary Soames, seemed to concur: When asked about her father’s black dog, she responded, “I think the psychiatrists have made rather a big meal of that!”

Still, it’s clear that Churchill didn’t use the black dog to profess positive mental health. Instead, the black dog that followed Churchill marked periods of deep melancholy that plagued him throughout life

Other Metaphors for Depression

There have been plenty of colorful metaphors for depression throughout the ages—and some of them even involved other animals.

Author Ernest Hemingway, for instance, invoked wild donkeys for his depressive states. “Certainly have the Black Ass today,” he wrote in 1945. “Miss Mary so much it makes me sick ... So am being black-assed and temperamental.” Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines black ass as “a state of depression or disgust.”

Theodore Roosevelt, meanwhile, went in another direction with his metaphor. Roosevelt suffered a series of personal tragedies years before his presidency, including the deaths of his beloved mother and his first wife (who died of kidney failure just a day after giving birth to their daughter) on Valentine’s Day 1884.

He soothed his sorrow by throwing himself into his work, and ranching in the Dakota territory. Where Horace’s black dog hung close to skirts, and Thrale’s “swung round and round,” the future 26th president of the United States—perhaps inspired by his cowboying antics—claimed that “black care never sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.” Hobbies and horses, it seems, leave the black dog in the dust.

Modern Usage of The Black Dog

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 5 percent of the global adult population suffers from depression—so while the black dog hasn’t fallen out of use, it has been used to raise awareness.

In 2015, the UK mental health charity SANE recruited a number of celebrities to front its Black Dog campaign, which aimed, in the words of The Guardian, to “defeat depression.” In order to bolster the campaign, SANE commissioned black dog statues, the first of which was named Horace. “Dogs, like mental health conditions, can be tamed,” SANE’s website noted.

More recently still, the one-woman cultural juggernaut Taylor Swift titled a track on her latest album “The Black Dog,” which Swifties speculated might have been about depression after the end of a relationship; others pointed out that black dogs can be a metaphor for death. It turns out that “The Black Dog” Swift mentions is a pub in London. And, thanks to an influx of clued-in Swifties flocking to its doors, it’s reasonable to assume the owners of the establishment will be—for the time being, at least—living the life of the white dog.

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