DAG: noun 1a. (usually in the plural) a lump of matted wool and faeces hanging from the rear end of a sheep; b. such a lump cut from a sheep. 2. a person (primarily male) who is regarded as something of a ‘character’, eccentric but entertainingly so, a wag. 3a. an unfashionable adolescent. b. any unfashionable or non-stylish person.

The ‘sheep’ sense of dag has a clearcut history. It comes from British dialect dag, more commonly dag-lock, which has the same meaning as the Aussie dag (the noisome and dangling tuft which—as Chaucer said apropos a shepherd—is ‘shiten’). Hence from Yorkshire we have this redolently romantic promise made by a young shepherd to his sweetheart: ‘My lambs new gowns shall bear thee, no daglocks shall ere come near thee’ (Two Yorkshire Lovers, 244).

Our earliest citation in Australia for the sheep dag is 1891: ‘Smothered in sheep-dung, and pelting one another with “dags” ’ (Truth (Sydney), 12 Apr., p. 73). C. McCullough gives us a piquant description of what a dag looks like: 1977 ‘Around the sheep’s rear end the wool grew foul with excrement, fly-blown, black and lumped together in what were called dags’ (The Thorn Birds, p. 118). Horses, it seems, liked eating the horrid things: 1902 ‘Many horses that are not hand-fed hang about the wool-sheds browsing on the sheep-dags that lie several feet deep in places’ (Bulletin, Sydney, 5 July, p. 16). If we are to take T. Ronan literally (which I shudder to do), the horses were not alone in their appreciation of these delicacies: 1956 ‘I ain’t letting one of our prominent local cattlemen, like my friend Mr Yates, be jockeyed out of his lawful due by any sheepman who ever ate fried dags for his supper’ (Moleskin Midas, p. 142). Some of these lumps of wool-combined-with-sheepshit grew into monstrous excretions, it would seem: 1944 ‘Before autumn crutching was introduced sheep dags were often of great size, particularly during lush seasons. For over 20 years in the men’s hut on Barooga station (Riverina, N.S.W.) there hung a “king” dag weighing 18 1/2 lbs’ (Bulletin (Sydney), 13 Dec., p. 12).

This sense of dag hatched out several combinations. A dag-rattler, for instance, is a sheep. From this arose the idiom to rattle (one’s) dags, meaning ‘to get a move on’ (or, as the newly posh Lisa Doolittle shouted to a horse at Ascot in My Fair Lady, ‘Move yer bloomin’ arse!’). A dag-picker was the unfortunate employed in a shearing shed in the messy business of using his hands to pick through dags in order to separate the wool (to be saved) from the shit. The adjective daggy is another offspring of dag and means ‘(of a sheep) foul with dags’.

Where, then, do the other meanings come from? The standard explanation is that all the other (non-sheep) senses of dag come from British dialect too, but from quite a different word. This dag (especially in children’s speech) means ‘a dare, a challenge, a feat of skill’. Thus from Somerset (1886):

To ‘set a dag’ is to perform some feat in such a way as to challenge imitation; such as walking along a round pole across a deep canal; or diving off from a considerable height. It is very common in such a case for the leader to say to his companions ‘Dhae.ur-z u dag. vaur ee’ [there’s a dag for you—i.e. there is a feat—do that if you can].

The Australian dag in the sense ‘a character, someone eccentric but entertainingly so’, is illustrated by the following citation: 1975 ‘By now Prince Leonard [the Australian who proclaimed his property a principality and himself a prince] had become a bit of a dag. The Press loved him. And the public, while occasionally passing him off as a nut, tended to say good on him, at least he’s giving those bloody shiny-bums a run for their money’ (Bulletin (Sydney), 17 May, p. 33). But when we look at the earliest citations for this sense of dag an interesting pattern emerges. The following are the earliest clear uses of the sense:

1916 Yes, ’Enessy was a dag if ever there was one (Anzac Songbook, p. 47).

1918 It was hard to recognise in him the race-day ‘Dag’ who, in pre-war days, used to swing the bag on country courses back South in the Land o’ Sun (Aussie: Australian Soldiers’ Magazine, Feb., p. 6).

The contexts are military, and specifically army. It is possible, of course, that the sense was used earlier in Australia, and is only by chance recorded in First World War publications (where colloquialisms are common). Harry Orsman in his Dictionary of New Zealand English (1997) uses as his first citation for this sense the same citation that is used in The Australian National Dictionary, in a slightly expanded form, and his second citation also comes from a military context:

1916 ‘Anzac types 2—The Dag’ ... Yes, ’Ennessy was a dag if ever there was one! (Anzac Book, p. 47).

1919 I do remember though ... three Diggers, real ‘dags’, the three of them (Quick March, 10 Sept., p. 17).

This evidence raises the possibility that dag in this sense is a First World War coinage. Even so, the second Australian citation possibly implies that the sense was in use before the war. Its derivation from British dialect dag ‘a dare, a challenge, a feat of skill’ therefore remains a strong possibility.

In the second edition of his The Australian Language (1966) Sidney Baker pointed to a new dag: ‘Dag, a person who is unenterprising, without courage. (Quite distinct from the old use of “dag” for a “hard case” or “character”)’. This is not quite the present sense, but Baker provides evidence for the emergence of a new word or sense. When it fully emerges, it is a pejorative term, meaning first ‘an unfashionable adolescent’, and then widening to mean ‘any person who is not stylish, who is unfashionable’. The derivative adjective daggy similarly means ‘not stylish; unfashionable’. Here are some typical usages: 1985 ‘The title “Dags” sums it up so well: the state most of us feel we are in during those teenage years—awkward social cripples, unattractive and consumed by anxieties about appearance, sex and all the rest’ (Canberra Times, 8 June, p. 21); 1997 ‘Dags watch Melrose Place and believe it. Dags wear ugg boots, footy jumpers, Hawaiian shorts, flanny shirts, padded bras, hot pants, tank tops and sequins’ (Sunday Telegraph, 26 Oct., p. 172); 1998 ‘There was also a smattering of daggy jeans, Blundstone boots or cheap gym boots and striped socks’ (R.G. Barrett, Mud Crab Boogie, p. 92); 1988 ‘Debuts are daggy. I reckon it’s your dad’s idea’ (Kathy Lette, Grommitts, p. 7); 1999 ‘I’m very self-conscious about living with my parents. It’s kind of daggy’ (C. Tsiolkas, The Jesus Man, p. 278)

 Is this a new word (as Baker thought), or is it a transfer from dag ‘the character’? There are some clues in the citations for the previous sense (dag as ‘wag’) to show that there was always a potential shift to the pejorative—i.e., the dag’s behaviour can be seen as ‘entertaining’ from one point of view, but it can also be seen as foolishness, stupidity, etc. We’ve seen this happening in the 1975 citation above about ‘Prince’ Leonard of Hutt.

It is just possible, however, that the pejorative connotations of this new dag and daggy derive in part from the homonyms in the sheep sense. Although there is no evidence in the records we have that this new dagginess is in any way associated with dirtiness or slovenliness, the new dag is, nevertheless, someone you would not want to be associated with because of his or her appearance or behaviour. Semantic contamination of this kind sometimes occurs with homonyms or with words that sound alike. Fruition, for example, derives ultimately from Latin frui ‘to enjoy’, and from 1400 to about 1850 it meant ‘enjoyment, pleasurable possession’. In the nineteenth century it became erroneously associated with fruit, and has come to mean ‘the state or process of bearing fruit’. Similarly, the word fey originally meant ‘fated to die’, but the word was influenced by the similar word fay ‘fairy’, so that fey now means ‘other-worldly, strange’.

The existence in Australian English of the homonym dag meaning on the one hand ‘a lump of matted wool and faeces hanging from the rear end of a sheep’, and on the other ‘a wag, a character’ is an unusual semantic situation. It is just possible that the pejorative connotations developed in the latter dag as a result of semantic contamination from the first. Both are objects one should steer well clear of!