Who can resist such a lovely and slightly naughty-sounding expression? It’s well known from The Right Stuff, but where did it originate? Ben Zimmer tells the story (or as much of it as can be found) at Slate:
Searching for clues, I noticed that the entry for the expression on Wiktionary had been anonymously edited a few years ago to give credit to “a Yale graduate named John Rawlings who helped design the astronauts’ space suits.” In turn, the Wiktionary editor claimed, Rawlings got it from a Yale friend, “the radio DJ Jack May (a.k.a. ‘Candied Yam Jackson’),” who had softened “fuck the dog” to be “simultaneously less vulgar and more pleasing to the ear.”
The story sounded somewhat implausible, but a dive into the archives of the Yale Daily News (where I was once a news editor) confirmed that there were indeed undergraduates named John Rawlings and Jack May around 1950. Rawlings was noted for his various artistic pursuits, including a choreographed staging of a book of e.e. cummings poetry, One Times One. And Joseph L. “Jack” May really did go by the name “Candied Yam Jackson” as a DJ on the college radio station WYBC.
In fact, May is still alive, and, as I would soon discover, has many stories to tell. Now 84, he is the retired president of the May Hosiery Mills, a family concern in Nashville established by his grandfather, Jacob May. When I talked to Jack May on the phone, he brought to my attention an epistolary memoir that he published in 2010, titled An Alphabet of Letters, in which he tells the “screw the pooch” story. Here it is in May’s own words:
John Rawlings was one of two roommates who were architecture students. In the spring of 1950 it was time for his project to complete the semester. He procrastinated. Apparently all architecture students do. He was going to be late even starting his charrette. So to be helpful I said the following:
JACK: You’re late, John, you’re fouling up. You are fucking the dog.
JOHN: Really, you are so vulgar and coarse, I just don’t want to hear it.
JACK: You’re still late. Is this better? You are screwing the pooch.
JOHN: (shrill laughter)
Isn’t that delightful? Zimmer provides the necessary caveat that “It’s not impossible […] for various military personnel to have independently transformed ‘fuck the dog’ into ‘screw the pooch’ on separate occasions” and quotes a correspondent who had heard it elsewhere; his conclusion:
Searching for the provenance of a word or phrase, as I’ve noted before, rarely turns up a single “just-so” story. But even when a definitive origin remains elusive, the voyage through rich cultural and personal worlds can make it all worth it. So thank you, “screw the pooch,” for introducing me to Candied Yam Jackson and the Playing Mantis.
Read the whole thing, and thanks, Paul!
Unrelated, but I have to link to Christian Lorentzen’s When Will Helen DeWitt Be Recognized As One of the Great American Novelists? The answer, I hope, is “soon.” Thanks, Greg/slawkenbergius!