As is the case with so many of today’s popular expressions, we’ve got William Shakespeare to thank for this phrase. Although the entire saying isn’t as commonly used in written or spoken English as others discussed here at The Word Counter, idioms taken from it certainly are. Read on to learn all about cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.
What Does Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Dogs of War Mean?
There are several ways to interpret the meaning of the phrase cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war as intended by Shakespeare centuries ago, which we’ll get to in a moment. But to understand how it’s typically intended in modern times, it’s helpful to break down the phrase into the two distinct idiomatic expressions most often used today.
Cry havoc: To “cry havoc” is to warn of impending chaos or destruction—to sound the alarm that disorder is about to occur. The word havoc was actually a military order in the Middle Ages, given by a commander to his soldiers, usually after they had achieved victory in battle; it was the signal for soldiers to go into a village and plunder and pillage (aka loot or take part in “the seizure of spoil”) and cause even more devastation. If it weren’t for Shakespeare, we might not use the word havoc today at all; he used it in many of his other plays as well. On its own, havoc simply means general disruption, whether that’s confusion, disorder, unrest, or turmoil or lawlessness, total chaos, or complete destruction and devastation.
You may most know the word from the idiom play havoc, also often written or said as raise havoc or wreak havoc. This idiom and its variations simply mean to cause disruption or damage for or to someone or something. For example: The wind played havoc with my hair during our photo shoot and The hurricane wreaked havoc across the Gulf Coast.
Dogs of war: This idiomatic expression can have a variety of meanings. Literally, it can be used to describe dogs trained for warfare. Dogs have been used in warfare since ancient times, sometimes to actually fight in combat and sometimes to serve as patrols or scouts, and they are still occasionally used in military operations today, particularly for bomb detection. The phrase can also be used to describe anyone or anything used to fight a war, from soldiers to weapons. It can also be used broadly to describe a general sense of chaos or havoc, like that of war, as in: I know you’re upset with him, but I wouldn’t say what you just said to me to your boyfriend, as it might unleash the dogs of war.
Keep reading for much more about the meaning of the phrase.
The Origin of the Expression
Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war is a line from the play Julius Caesar, written by William Shakespeare in 1599. In act iii, scene i of the play, Mark Antony speaks these words in a soliloquy (meaning, he says them to himself):
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy.
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war,
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds,
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
He recites these lines after Caesar’s assassination, as he’s standing with Julius Caesar’s body. In the speech, Antony promises to get revenge against the assassins—a group of senators led by Brutus—by inciting an uprising at Caesar’s funeral. He imagines not only that the chaos will result in violence against the assassins, but that there will be war and violence throughout Rome.
In a literal reading of the soliloquy, Shakespeare is referring to familiar animals, dogs, albeit those trained for warfare, and to the idea of loosening their slip collars or letting go of the leashes holding them back so they’re free to attack. It’s possible that’s how he intended the line. Just as it’s possible that to him dogs of war meant, as discussed above, soldiers or more aptly regular Roman civilians who at the encouragement of Mark Antony take up the cause and arms to fight. In this sense, let slip could mean that war let’s one slip or descend from civilized behavior into violence. In the same vein, Shakespeare could have also used let slip the dogs of war more metaphorically, to mean simply a release of the peace and whatever systems or behaviors were keeping the peace, paving the way for disorder.
As mentioned above, the idioms cry havoc and dogs of war, along with wreak havoc, are used much more often on their own nowadays in everyday speech and text. That said, cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war has been used many times since Shakespeare’s day in books, movies, television, and music, so much so that language experts regard it as a cliché.
What is a cliché? A trite, overused expression—a phrase that has perhaps become too commonplace.
An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. These words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
Take the first example literally, and you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
If you heard the saying cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war used today and took it literally, you might understand one of its meanings: to actually cry out the word havoc in order to release dogs trained to fight. But then you’d miss its typical, more figurative definition: simply to cause chaos and pandemonium, on par with that of war.
Other Shakespearean Sayings
William Shakespeare’s influence on the English language is undeniable. As mentioned at the start of this article, many idioms used in modern English today come from the mind and work of Shakespeare, who also wrote Hamlet, Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, and countless other plays. Here are just a few other sayings to his credit:
- Kill with kindness
- Wild-goose chase
- Green-eyed monster
- Apple of my eye
- Break the ice
- Pure as the driven snow
- Brevity is the soul of wit
- It’s (all) Greek to me
- Love is blind
- All the world’s a stage
- Heart of gold
- All that glitters is not gold
- Too much of a good thing
- End all be all
- All’s well that ends well
Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war basically means to bring about chaos and destruction. The saying is a famous line from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Today, you’ll more often hear or see the idioms cry havoc and dogs of war used on their own than the entire phrase, both of which describe impending disorder or destruction of some kind.