One day I was riding the subway, listening but not-listening to two guys talk about their workplace. I wished they'd be quiet so I could read my book in peace, but then something one of them said really grabbed my ear. He said with chagrin that their office was just a "doggy-dog world".
I was pretty much gobsmacked by this utterance. I mean, I knew what he meant. The context made the meaning unmistakable. He clearly meant a "dog-eat-dog" world. But that's not what he said.
The origin of the phrase "dog-eat-dog world" is debated, but it seems to be related to a Latin phrase "canis caninam non est", or "a dog doesn't eat a dog's flesh", meaning that even a dog has limits and will not destroy its own kind. Humans apparently have no such compunction and so we came to imagine living in a ruthlessly competitive world in which metaphorical dogs do devour each other.
But in the instance described above, the origin of the phrase doesn't seem to matter at all.
The man who said "doggy-dog world" used approximate sounds--essentially an idiomatic homonym--to convey the meaning that is usually assigned to the expression "dog-eat-dog world." His meaning is clear, but at the same time what he said is divorced from meaning in that it has no connection to the cultural associations that made the words "dog-eat-dog" connote ruthless competition. An idiom is a combination of words that have a figurative meaning based on their common usage. "Doggy-dog" means precisely nothing. But if enough people start saying it in lieu of "dog-eat-dog", perhaps its common usage will then transform it into the accepted idiomatic phrase. Would someone in the future researching the source of its meaning find that it has evolved--by sound alone and not by meaning--from the original idiom?
There is something infuriating about this all to me, a sense that idiots are mishandling something very precious, but I also find it fascinating. Being able to speak idiomatically is possibly the highest measure of language proficiency--I've known nonnative speakers who speak English so well I'd never suspect it isn't their first language, but they still had to ask me to explain the meaning of most idiomatic phrases. This is because idioms are derived from cultural sources that have nothing to do with the meanings of the individual words they contain; they reference historical and religious sources, literature, and custom. What happens, then, when the culturally-rich idioms become degraded into essentially meaningless sounds? Does it matter, since most people are unaware of the origins of idioms as it is? Since they are agreed-upon signifiers, will the degraded versions simply take the place of the meaningful idioms? Is this another sign that our culture as a whole is becoming degraded, dumbed-down and separated from meaningful discourse?
I hope not. The less-pessimistic, more playful side of me can almost enjoy this phenomenon. Language changes and grows, sometimes in unexpected ways. Maybe idiom is simply being scrappy, adapting in order to survive changes in the culture from which it derives. After all, it is a doggy-dog world out there.