Hair of the Dog


Hair of the dog is a colloquial expression in the English language predominantly used to refer to alcohol that is consumed with the aim of lessening the effects of a hangover. The expression originally referred to a method of treatment of a rabid dog bite by placing hair from the dog in the wound. The use of the phrase as a metaphor for a hangover treatment dates back at least to the time of Shakespeare. It is possible that the phrase was used to justify an existing practice, ‘similia similibus curantur’ (Latin: ‘like cures like’), which dates back to ancient Greece.

Similarly, in the 1930’s cocktails known as Corpse Revivers were served by hotel staff to guests ailing from too much drink.

The phrase also exists in Hungarian, where the literal translation to English is ‘(You may cure) the dog’s bite with its fur.’ However, it has evolved into a short two-word phrase (‘kutyaharapást szőrével’) that is used when one is trying to express that the solution to a problem is more of the problem. In Ireland and Mexico, the phrase ‘The Cure’ (‘”curarse la cruda,’ in Spanish) is often used instead of ‘hair of the dog.’ It is used, often sarcastically by asking someone if they are ‘Going for a Cure?’ In Costa Rica the expression refers to a pig rather than a dog (‘pelos de la misma chancha’).

In Polish, hair of the dog is called a ‘wedge’ (‘klin’), mirroring the concept of dislodging a stuck wedge with another one. The Russian term translates to ‘after being drunk,’ which indicates a process of drinking to decrease effects of drinking the night before. A similar usage is encountered in Romanian, Bulgarian, Italian, and Turkish the phrase translates to ‘a nail dislodges a nail.’

In Swedish, an alcoholic beverage which relieves a hangover translates roughly to ‘restorer.’ In Norwegian, it is usually called a ‘repairer’ or ‘fixer.’ In Finnish the practice is called ‘stabilizing,’ and in Czech ‘extricating.’ In Tanzania, the swahili phrase is ‘kuzimua,’ which means ‘assist to wake up after a coma.’

There are at least two theories as to how ‘hair of the dog’ works. In the first, hangovers are described as the first stage of alcohol withdrawal, which is then alleviated by further alcohol intake. Although ‘…Low [ethanol] doses may effectively prevent alcohol withdrawal syndrome in surgical patients,’ this idea is questionable as the signs and symptoms of hangover and alcohol withdrawal are very different.

In the second, hangovers are attributed to methanol metabolism. Levels of methanol, present as a congener in alcohol, have been correlated with severity of hangover. Methanol metabolism to the highly toxic formate via formaldehyde has a timecourse in keeping with the appearance of hangover symptoms. As both ethanol and methanol are metabolized by alcohol dehydrogenase – and ethanol is a much better substrate for this enzyme – drinking more of the former then effectively prevents (or delays) the metabolism of the latter.

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