Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Let sleeping dogs lies is an idiom that has existed since at least the 1300s, with cognates in several languages, including German and French.

Meaning

When we say “let sleeping dogs lie” we mean to not bring up problems that will themselves bring up even bigger problems. In other words, we are saying to not stir things up.

This is such an important concept, that some problems are better left unmentioned, that there are several methophorical expressions which mean the same thing, such as leave well enough alone, (don’t) open a can of worms, and never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you. This last gives a glimpse into the metaphor: If a ‘problem’ isn’t causing any trouble for you, why bring it up? Just like when you wake a sleeping dog, you might get bit.

   That you should ‘let sleeping dogs lie,’ is an old concept.

Origin

This idiom has existed in some form since at least the 1300’s. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs lists the following appearances, among other 1Speake, Jennifer. Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015.:

  • 1385 – it appeared in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as “It is nought good a slepying hound to wake.”
  • 1546 – John Heywood’s Dialogue of Proverbs – “It is euil wakying of a slepying dog.
  • 1681 – S. Covil’s Whigs’ Supplication – “It’s best To let a sleeping mastiff rest.
  • 1824 – Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet – “Take my advice, and spear [ask] as little about him as he does about you. Best to let sleeping dogs lie.

The French equivalent is “n’esveillez pas lou chien qui dort,” or wake not the sleeping dog.

More Idioms Starting with L

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Sources   [ + ]

1. Speake, Jennifer. Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015.