Bill Sikes and his dog Bull’s-Eye. A reproduction of a c. 1870s photogravure illustration by Fred Barnard for Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
by Mark Gwynn
The Australian expression to have a head like a robber’s dog means to be very ugly or unattractive. It is first recorded in the 1940s.
Horrie has a head on him like a ‘robber’s dog’ and was in all the trouble about the place, caused by playing shots over which he had no control. (Picton Post, 21 November 1946)
Several variations of this unflattering expression have been recorded over the years, including to have a head like a drover’s dog, to have a head like a beaten favourite, and to have a head like a half-sucked mango. In Frank Hardy’s The Yarns of Billy Borker (1965), the eponymous storyteller provides an insight into the phrase’s adaptability:
You always have a specific character in your stories. That’s because they’re true mate. Had a head on him like a burglar’s torch. A burglar’s torch? Yeh, a long thin neck and a round head. Every real character has a definite name and a head on him like something. I’ll tell this story my way, see. But if you tell it to someone else, you can use a different name and say his head was like something else: maybe a robber’s dog or a warped sandshoe.
As part of our continuing research into Australian English we would like to record more variations of the ‘to have a head like…’ idiom. If you know of any, please tell us. If you have found the idiom in a book, newspaper, blog (or other online source), we’d appreciate any source details you can provide.