curb your dog. This phrase typically appears on signs in urban areas as a reminder of public sanitation laws requiring dog owners to clean up droppings from property other than their own.
Dog curbing laws have been on the books of most states since the mid-1900's, with New York City leading the way in 1937. There is a great deal of confusion about the meaning of this phrase and has been from the start. Only a year after adoption, in 1938, the Middleton (New York) Times Herald noted that “There is ambiguity in the New York proclamation, however. We have never heard it ruled whether curb in this instance means to restrain the pup or to pilot it to the outside rim of the sidewalk.” As you can see from Figure 2, a photograph taken in Alsace, the French take the phrase to quite literally. In his “insider's handbook to life in Paris” David Applegate explains that le chein should “do his besoins (needs) in the caniveau (gutter) off the curb.” He strongly suggests that the dog owner's responsibilities—at least in Paris—end there.
Tempting as such a reading may be and ambiguous as the use of the word “curb” is in this instance, dog owners in the U.S. will run afoul of the law if they leave their dog's poop in the gutter. No doubt it was a twentieth century New York lawmaker (wanting to spare the sensitivities of the citizens) who chose the euphemistic and misleading “curb.” As a verb this means to “restrain, check, keep in check” and is derived from a bit of hardware added to a bridle and bit, which is also called a “curb.” This kind of curb was used for a horse deemed especially difficult to control. It is a small piece of chain which, when pulled, curves the horse's neck in an uncomfortable fashion. The term comes from the French adjective courbe, meaning bent or crooked.
The one advantage of the phrase is that whatever it actually means it seems to pack a lot of significance into three short words. As humorist and New Yorker Todd Rosenberg writes on his site, OddTodd, “I guess it's just a universal term that if you read between the lines says, ‘Don't let your rabies dog bite people for no reason and then piss all over my flowers and then take a dump (and/or barf) in the middle of the sidewalk!! Ok?!’ To be honest, I think I'd appreciate that sign said all that more. It would be funny and I'd know exactly what they're talking about....” Of course, in this same rant he refers to William Safire as “that nerd in nyt magazine who rambles about this crap.”
1. Popik, Barry. 2005. “Curb Your Dog” and Pooper Scooper Law (1978). The Big Apple. Accessed Jul 10 2008 from http:// www.barrypopik.com/ index.php/ new_york_city/ entry/ curb_your_dog_and_ pooper_scooper_law_1978/.
2. Curb Your Dog. 1938. Middleton Times Herald. May 9. Accessed Accessed from http:// www.newspaperarchive.com/ PdfViewerTags.aspx? img= 35946096.
3. Applefield, David. 2005. Paris inside Out: The Insider's Handbook to Life in Paris. 7th ed. ed. Guilford, Conn: Globe Pequot Press. 103.
4. The Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. 3d ed. Accessed from http://dictionary.oed.com.
6. Rosenberg, Todd. 2008. Curb Your Confusiasm. OddTodd. Accessed Jul 10 2008 from http:// www.oddtodd.com/ message530.html.