Mad dogs and Englishmen…

It was a relatively hot day today and that put me in mind of what I thought was an old saying, that “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” I was having tea with two of my new colleagues and I asked them if they knew that expression. They did not, but they both laughed at the implied “caricature  reference” to their former colonial overlords. I took the opportunity to strengthen my bonds with them by mentioning that “we Irish” had been oppressed by those same British.

Actually, I have as much English ancestry as Irish, despite my very ethnic name.  Really, I am a typically American mongrel from way back. On the other hand, my very Irish name gives me a sympathy with the Irish, who really did suffer great hardship under the British. So while my DNA may be as mixed as they come, and the most tardy of my ancestors arrived in the US by 1830, making me about as un-hyphenated American as they come, the fact of my name makes me feel like an Irish-American. One of my tea companions reads my blog and I hope he will forgive me for my lack of full disclosure at the time.

Heck, I figured the “Only mad dogs…” phrase had to have originated in one of the tropical former British colonies. It was so apt a description of the very proper English wearing suits and ties in the equatorial heat, that I figured once coined, the phrase would have spread throughout the Empire.  I did a Google search on the phrase. According to Wikipedia, the phrase comes from a Noel Coward song entitled “Mad dogs and Englishmen.” The song was composed, without benefit of pen, paper, or piano, while Mr. Coward was driving through Vietnam from Hanoi to Saigon. The lyrics, which really are amusing in a Gilbert and Sullivan way, can be found here and a recording of the song, sung by Mr. Coward himself on CBS TV, can be found here.

There is a bit of irony in all of this as Mr. Coward was himself an Englishman.




  1. Tim said,

    December 20, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    Since I wrote this post, I have been doing a little internet research on the origin of the “Mad dogs and Englishmen” quote. The results are mildly amusing.

    There is an internet rumor going around that the quote comes from Rudyard Kipling. Some writers even go so far as to name the poem that it supposedly came from. But the full text of Kipling’s poems are online. When I read the poem that supposedly contains the quote, it is not there. Furthermore, one can search the full texts of Kipling’s poems and the phrase does not appear. So it very much appears that the quote does not come from Kipling.

    There is more than one quotation site that attributes the phrase as being an “Indian proverb.” However, no sources are cited, making me believe that this too could just be someone’s idea of a plausible source of the phrase, now given a facade of authority by a web site that claims to give sources for common quotes.

    There is a related quote in The Traveller’s Dictionary of Quotation by Peter Yapp (Routledge Press, London, 1983). The quote, coincidentally enough, describes the heat in Colombo, Sri Lanka:

    “By midday in Colombo, the heat is so unbearable that the streets are empty, save for thousands of Englishmen taking mad dogs for walks.”

    The quote is attributed to A Dustbin of Milligan, by Spike Milligan, 1962. This post-dates Noel Coward, as the “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” song was first performed in 1931, and so cannot be the source of the original quote, but I thought the connection to Sri Lanka made it worth mentioning.

    I guess it is not news that there is a lot of unverified information on the internet, but here is yet more evidence.

  2. george fleming said,

    April 4, 2009 at 1:39 am

    Tim: Thanks for your comments on the source of this expression. This evening, my wife and I are going to a Tampa, Florida bar named Mad Dogs and Englishmen. (We are going to listen to a Venezuelan singer named Roberto.) By the way, the bar is owned by the son of Robert Morley. The bartender is Morley’s nephew. How appropriate, then, that the Morleys named their bar with a nod to its subtropical setting and with a wink to their ancestors’ colonizing practices. By the way, I listened to Coward’s 1955 performance of the song — interesting how he sings in a heat-crazed, malaria-induced cadence. I printed the lyrics (thanks for attaching them) and will give them to Roberto this evening. George

  3. Kevyn Arthur said,

    July 3, 2009 at 5:23 am

    I have a 1787 newspaper quote (in the Barbados Mercury. Nov. 10, but possibly copied from an English paper) that “it is a common thing to hear a Spaniard say, in most of the cities of Spain, that ‘none but English men and dogs are seen in their streets immediately after dinner.'”
    My sense is that the sentiment existed long before Noel Coward, whose music I love, and who apparently knew it, wrote his song.

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