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Shaggy-dog story

Q From Jane Rawoof: Having heard several clever shaggy-dog stories recently, I wondered what the origin of the term is.

A By a shaggy-dog story we commonly mean a hugely embellished, often rambling tale that ends either in a deflating anticlimax or with an atrocious pun. The term and the genre are widely known but their origins are poorly understood.

The first shaggy-dog stories seem to have been variations on a tall tale that was indeed about a shaggy-haired dog. Eric Partridge wrote a monograph called The ‘Shaggy Dog’ Story, Its Origin, Development and Nature in 1953. He said that “the best explanation of the term is that it arose in a story very widely circulated only since 1942 or 1943, although it was apparently invented in the 1930s”.

That dating for the name seems secure. The first known example is this:

They say they are known as shaggy-dog stories because the story of the shaggy dog was the first of the lot to become popular. That can’t be true, since the shaggy dog, besides being a poor specimen, seems to have appeared fairly recently.

J C Furnas in Esquire in May 1937, collected in The Bedside Esquire in 1940.

Though this fixes the term shaggy-dog story in the 1930s, it leaves open the origin of the story itself or exactly what type it was. We may reasonably argue that the tale is much older than the name and indeed may have been a feature of campfire or fireside tales since roughly the year dot. Mark Twain gives one extended example in a book about his travels out west, Roughing It in 1872. But it does seem that the popularity of the genre widened in the 1940s.

An early example described as a shaggy-dog story appeared in the Ogden Standard Examiner of Utah on 23 November 1942. It featured a dog trainer, long out of work, who finally got a chance to present his act to an agent. His two dogs outdid themselves in energetic cavorting but the agent just grunted:

Finally the little dog spoke up and said, “Well, fellow, how about giving us a break and booking our act?”
The agent sprang to his feet. “My God!” he said, “did that little dog talk?”
“No,” said the discouraged trainer, “the big dog is a ventriloquist. Here, Spot, let’s get the hell out of here, no one appreciates a trained dog act anymore.”

(If the story had stopped at ventriloquist, it would have been much funnier; it’s the thumping anticlimax of the final sentence that makes it a shaggy-dog story.)

There are many candidates for the original shaggy-dog story. William and Mary Morris, in The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, give a version of it that involves an advertisement being placed in The Times to announce a competition to find the shaggiest dog in the world. After a vast amount of effort and investigation (described in detail, after the nature of this type of story), the winning dog was presented to the aristocratic instigator of the competition, who said: “I don’t think he’s so shaggy”.

Eric Partridge gives another version as the original. A grand householder in Park Lane, London, had the great misfortune to lose a very valuable and rather shaggy dog. He advertised repeatedly in The Times, but without luck, and eventually he gave up hope. But an American in New York saw the advertisement, was touched by the man’s devotion, and took great trouble to seek out a dog that matched the specification in the advertisement and which he could bring over to London on his next business trip. He presented himself in due course at the owner’s impressive house, where he was received in the householder’s absence by an even more impressive butler, who glanced at the dog, bowed, winced almost imperceptibly and exclaimed, in a horror-stricken voice, “But not so shaggy as that, sir!”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 1 May 1999
Last updated 2 Nov. 2013

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 2 November 2013.