Buxtehude, where the dog barks with its tail

Buxtehude, wo der Hund mit dem Schwanz bellt

Buxtehude, where the dog barks with its tail

by Jerry W. Jaeger

Buxtehude is world-famous not only for the fairy tale of the race between the rabbit and the hedgehog, but also for the proverbial saying that Buxtehude is the town “where the dogs bark with their tails”, or “where the dog barks with its tail”. The saying seems to have originated during the 19th century.  The first dogs, “that bark with their tails”, can be found on postcards shortly before the turn of the 20th century.  A travel guide through Buxtehude, Altkloster, and the surrounding area from 1905 gives the following explanation:

“Yes, the folks of Buxtehude are funny and happy here. They like to have fun and laugh along at the jokes circulated about the city, without being annoyed. Thus one laughs at the saying of the dog barking with its tail, although the strangers in particular do not know the meaning of the same, which points to the bells (dogs), which had a rope (tail) attached to the hammer and the ringing of the bell is to (bark). ” www.buxtehude.de

That the bells in Buxtehude were called dogs may well be the core of this “German word game”. But that did not satisfy the Buxtehuder. They continued to elaborate on the story, shifting its origins to the Middle Ages, back in time when the city was founded. Prior to 1200AD, the area around Buxtehude was swamp and marsh land. Archbishop Giselbert von Bremen brought Dutch water engineers from Holland into the country, bringing with them state-of-the-art technology for reclaiming marsh land. They created in the marsh, near the already existing monastery of Buxtehude, a port city that was a state-of-the-art harbor for those times: the city of Buxtehude.  As a landmark for the modern trading city, a stately church with a tall tower was built. In its tower were bells from Holland. Bell in Dutch is “Hunte”. Dogs in German is “Hunde”. The words sound a lot alike.  And while the bells in the other parts of the country were struck with a hammer, in Buxtehude, of course, the bells were rung with a rope attached to the pendulum hammer. This rope soon became frayed, reminding one of a dog’s tail. So it was natural to call the bells dogs, and their ringing (in German, bellen) as barking. The phrase was born and so still announces the cleverness of the Buxtehude citizens.

So, you don’t believe my story? Then ask Uncle Larry, or Aunt  Jeanette, or Aunt Edie if they have ever heard the saying, “Buxtehude, wo der Hund mit’m Schwanz bellt.”

You see, when we were growing up on the farm, going in to town, either Brenham or LaGrange, was an all-day affair.  It was something we got excited about because there was a chance that we could get an ice cream from the Dairy Queen, or a cookie from the bakery.  Of course we would always go to the Super Value grocery store and sometimes the A&P grocery store.  And when we were in Brenham, most of the time we would go downtown to Perry Brothers 5 and Dime. What a treat! So when we saw Daddy putting on his “going-to-town clothes”, we would ask him where he was going because we wanted to go along. That is when we heard the words: “Buxtehude, wo der Hund mit’m Schwanz bellt.”  We had no idea what he was saying, but we knew what it meant…you ain’t goin’ along.

Time marched on and I forgot about Buxtehude. It probably didn’t exist anyway because it sounded like a place in a German fairy tale. Regardless, I knew I did not want to go there.  As you know, Aunt Ina and I and our daughter, Anna, moved to Germany in 1980. We lived on the main street of Buedingen and across the street from our apartment building was a fish shop. They had the best fish sandwiches. One day while I was walking past the fish shop I happened to glance in the shop window and saw a wooden box full of smoked fish displayed in the window. On the box was painted, “Buxtehude”. WOW! It does exist.  Or maybe it is a fish company with a funny sounding fairy tale name. Or can it be the same Buxtehude Daddy was always talking about? When I got home, I asked Ina if she had ever heard of Buxtehude. “Sure,” she said. “It is a town on the Elbe River, across the river from Hamburg.” So I asked her if she had ever heard of the expression, “Buxtehude, wo der Hund mit’m Schwanz bellt.” “No,” she said. “That doesn’t even make sense”.  Yeah, dogs don’t bark with their tails. It was probably something Daddy made up just to keep us kids from annoying him.  And after I thought about it while, I concluded that he probably meant, “Buxtehude, wo der Hund nach dem Schwanz bellt”. That means, Buxtehude, where the dog barks after its tail. I was good with that, and forgot about it again.

Then one day several years ago, I thought about the saying again and did an internet search on it. Voila! There is was on the Buxtehude website, as shown above. Daddy had not made it up after all.  I doubt if he knew the origin of the expression because he probably got it from his dad, who got it from his dad, who was from Freiburg on the Elbe, a town about 30 miles north of Buxtehude.  This, for me, is icing on the cake that our Jaeger ancestors came from this area, so I made it a priority to visit Buxtehude on my next trip to Germany in June of 2018.

Too bad Pooch, I got to go to Buxtehude, and you didn’t!



Memorial to the Famous Dog-Tailed Bell

4 thoughts on “Buxtehude, where the dog barks with its tail

  1. David Wisian

    I’m so happy I found this! Whenever
    I used to go anywhere with my grandfather I would ask him “where are we going?”
    His answer was always “Buxtehude” then I would say “where is that” and he would say “where the dogs bark with their tails.” I have never found anyone besides my family who had ever heard this and unfortunately non of us ever asked him why he always said that. Now I say the same thing to my kids as a way to remember him but all I could really tell them about it is that my grandfather used to say it.

    1. I’m glad you found our website too! My uncle wrote this for the site and we’ve had a lot of people tell us about having heard the phrase when they were kids but they never knew what it meant.

    2. Gregg Trout

      I’m from Somerville and I remember my great grandfather Oliver Kaltwasser used to say this. My sister Sheila told me years ago what it meant but I naturally assumed she mistranslated it. Oddly enough I was just watching a documentary called “Exploring Hitler’s Mountain” and they mentioned Buxtahude and it struck that memory. I grabbed my phone and yours was the first google search result I found. Small world. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Chuck Ruhmann

    My father was born in Columbus, and his father was born in Frelsburg, Tx. When we would ask him where he was going, he would say Buchtahose. It’s sounds so much like Buxtehude that I bet it is a take-off of it. As it was passed down through the generations, it probably got changed slightly.

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