The Bible’s Book of Samuel tells the popular story of David and Goliath. The tale goes that the Israelites were losing a battle with the Philistines because no one wanted to fight Goliath, a large and fearsome Philistine. David, a young boy at the time, took on the challenge and brought only his staff, sling, and five stones. Despite his physical disadvantage, David wins by hurling a stone at Goliath’s forehead, which knocks him out, and then cuts off his head.
This story is a good example of why many people root for the underdog. In a situation where someone is smaller or unlikely to succeed, the surprising result of the underdog winning is a refreshing thing to see rather than to see the obvious winner come out victorious time and time again.
But why do we call a disadvantaged person in situations like these an “underdog?” What does it mean to be one (assuming you are one), and why do many people root for underdogs despite all the odds? We explain the context behind this saying in this article of English Slang Decoded.
What Is An Underdog?
The term “underdog” can be traced back to the practice of dog fighting. Dog fights were held as early as the Roman Empire and continued to be popular until 19th century Europe. It became a source of entertainment for British royalty and then later the public until it was banned in 1835. However, the ban only made dog fighting more popular, and the public continued to hold dog fights in hidden pits.
In the United States, dog fights have been practiced since the 1750s, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that its popularity began to rise. During that time, the term underdog was given to dogs who were beaten in a fight. On the other hand, winning dogs gave us another American slang: top dog, or a term used to describe someone victorious or the leader of their group. So, if a top dog was a sure winner, the underdog wasn’t.
We can infer “underdog” it was used as an insult: an underdog was a dog that was obviously at a disadvantage. They were smaller, weaker, or weren’t built for a fight as their opponent was, so it may be clear from the beginning that their chances of winning are much lower. If people were making bets, it would be a high risk to place their money on this dog because it was clear their opponent was built for a fight unlike them, so it would be a safe bet to put their money on the dog that looks like they’re more likely to win.
Rooting for the Underdog
If there’s one thing the story of David and Goliath taught us, it’s that people shouldn’t underestimate the underdog. Back in the dog fights, there were instances where an underdog managed to overcome all the odds and turn out victorious after a fight. They may have been more physically capable of winning than others may have thought, or they found a way to beat their opponent who failed to use their advantage properly.
Because of this, it wasn’t really a bad move to bet on the dog that looked like it had a disadvantage because it was still possible for them to win. People who bet on the underdog were seen as people who were expecting to see the dog do more than most people think they could, and thus were “rooting for the underdog” to win.
Soon, this slang went on to define other situations outside of dog fighting. In sports like boxing or basketball, people root for the underdog team that end up facing the team that always wins. In films, underdogs can become the unlikeliest of heroes and overcome adversaries much bigger and more powerful than they are.
Underdogs in Pop Culture
Aside from David from the David and Goliath story, here’s a good pop culture character most people may know: Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games series.
Katniss is a good example of an underdog. She was born in one of the poorest districts in Panem, making her thin and used to the feeling of starvation. She may have learned how to hunt to survive, but she never trained or prepare herself to be hunted by other children.
When she volunteered as a tribute in place of her sister, she was seen as an underdog among the other tributes. She did not have the training of a Career, children who were trained to fight and have higher chances of winning in the games. While Katniss was one underdog out of many children, she was the underdog many viewers rooted for because of what she showed. She showed herself to be relatable and chose humanity over taking advantage of those less powerful than her.
Later in the games, it became clear that just because she wasn’t a Career doesn’t mean she can’t defend herself. Eventually, she manages to win the game despite her status as an underdog.
Why Do People Root for the Underdog?
Why side with the underdog when they are at a clear disadvantage and you’re more likely to make a safe bet siding with the top dog? Most people root for the underdog because it is refreshing to see a surprising win rather than the obvious victory from someone everyone expects to win.
When an underdog wins, it often comes as a surprise. They aren’t expected to win, but they prove that they don’t need their opponent’s advantage to emerge victorious. Their wins are known as an “upset” because it upsets the balance and expectations of most people.
Others root for the underdog because of what most underdogs represent. They are the beaten and trodden players who most people take for granted, and some people see themselves in the underdog. A win for the underdog is a win for everyone like them who have been taken for granted. It’s even more inspiring when a top dog rigs the game or situation due to their power, yet an underdog manages to overcome this obstacle as well.
So, if you’re wondering why people root for the underdog despite the odds against them, here’s why. It’s an inspiring and refreshing to see someone rise to the occasion despite the odds against them. Underdogs are an inspiration to continue fighting for what you want, even if your opponent has every advantage against you.
What other American English and British English slangs do you want to decode next?