Screw the Pooch.

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!

Comments

  1. john burke says:

    I first heard “fuck the dog” around 1963 from co-workers on the Southern Pacific Railroad. According to legend there had been an engineer who was friends with a clerk in the timekepers’ office, where operating crews’ time slips–fairly complicated, with details that affected paychecks–were processed. Their long-standing practice by which the engineer would note “20 minutes fucking the dog” on his timeslips was disrupted when the clerk retired; he advised the engineer his replacement was a woman, and suggested he moderate his language. The engineer remembered to write “chasing” instead of “fucking” thereafter until one day he slipped into his old habit; he got a note from the timekeeper reading “I see you finally caught that dog.”

  2. Ha!

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    As someone who was a WYBC DJ three decades and change after Mr. May was (with the crappy grades in my undergraduate linguistics classes as evidence of how many hundreds of hours I spent on-air rather than doing my academic work …), I am delighted by the anecdote and feel rather chagrined that comparatively few of my radio generation had different names for on-air use and none involving candied yams (although maybe this was right before Karen Finley was a thing?). I guess there was the Great Tenaj (given name at birth apparently Janet) a rather eccentric thirty-something lady (not a student at the time) who oversaw the jazz department for a while.

  4. It took me years to learn that stool pigeon was a euphemism of shitbird.

  5. I take it back. Shitbird is much later and also has a more general derogatory meaning, but was adopted as a nice dysphemism for stool pigeon. I saw it in Richard Bachman’s (i.e. Stephen King’s) Roadwork.

  6. including a choreographed staging of a book of e.e. cummings poetry

    grrrrr

  7. Shim Kiho says:

    A colleague here in Seoul showed me a photo he took of a college age woman on the subway wearing a t-shirt that read “I REALLY FU*KED A DOG”. I thought someone was trying to be edgy and was trying to say “I really screwed the pooch”. I never knew the original, more vulgar phrase.

    (At least that’s what I hope the t-shirt was trying to say. The use of A instead of THE worries me since it gives the wrong impression.)

  8. Wow, so the new edition is out! And only $5 on the Kindle! Such great news. What we need now is a list of changes to the text, not just for the purposes of bemoaning change with greater precision but also because to judge from the one update we already know about (the Inuit/Inuktitut/Inuttut thing) the changes DeWitt felt the need to make would probably make interesting reading in and of themselves.

  9. Agreed! And I would think she of all writers would be happy to provide such a thing (data! she loves it!).

  10. Jim (another one) says:

    “It’s not impossible […] for various military personnel to have independently transformed ‘fuck the dog’ into ‘screw the pooch’ on separate occasions”

    I heard the expression a few times, and then only from officers – part of the officer/enlisted sociolect divide, I guess.

  11. January First-of-May says:

    I always thought it was “screw the pouch” (~= “the bag” ~= “the lot”). I never expected it to actually be connected to “pooch” meaning “dog”.

    Then again, I’ve never heard of “fuck(ed) the dog” as an expression either.

  12. I always thought it was “screw the pouch” (~= “the bag” ~= “the lot”).

    Folk etymology at work! Seriously, this is how language change happens. If enough people had the same (mis)interpretation as you, the expression would change, and only antiquarians would remember the original “pooch” version.

  13. As a result of this post, I purchased The Last Samurai (Kindles are wonderful for impulse book-buying) and although I’m not ready to say it’s the greatest novel ever written I admit that for pure pleasure I can’t think of anything better.

  14. Excellent!

  15. January First-of-May says:

    Folk etymology at work! Seriously, this is how language change happens. If enough people had the same (mis)interpretation as you, the expression would change, and only antiquarians would remember the original “pooch” version.

    The problem is, “pooch” and “pouch” don’t actually sound particularly similar, except in my weird world of spelling-based-pronunciation-except-not-even-that-really.

    (How many English words there even are where “ou” is pronounced “oo”? Aside from a bunch of recent loands, I can only think of “pour”, some versions of “route”, maybe “coup”, and the name “Douglas”.)

  16. January, pour has /ɔ/, and Douglas has /ʌ/. But there are you, tour, coupon, Louis/Louise/Louisiana, routine, acoustic, through, wound (noun), youth, group, mousse, goulash, troupe, croup, croupier, soup, frou-frou, ghoul, joule, loupe, nougat, and more. Obviously a lot of them are of French origin.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    pour has /ɔ/

    Only, AFAIK, for people who merge /ʊr/ into /ɔr/ – though nowadays that’s most of them.

  18. I say “sure” with /ʊr/ but “poor” with /ɔr/.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    Ah, so it’s a gradient like the GOOSE > FOOT shift, where more and more words are apparently GOOSE the farther north you go in England?

  20. That is what has happened to the CURE lexical set. However, pour has belonged to FORCE (whether or not merged with NORTH) for quite a while. Quoth the OED:

    Pronunciations with a diphthong /aʊə/ , showing the normal reflex of Middle English ū (diphthongization not usually being prevented before final r ), prevailed until the 19th cent., as evidenced by the usual rhyme of the word with e.g. shower , flower (compare the 18th and 19th cent. quots. for the α forms), and are still found in regional varieties (compare the ε and Scottish α forms). Pronunciations with either Middle English open or close ō or their reflexes are suggested by a number of the spellings, and there is also some evidence from other sources for such pronunciations in the early modern period (see further especially E. J. Dobson Eng. Pronunc. 1500–1700 (ed. 2, 1968) II. §165, 208–9). However, pronunciations with /ɔə/ (as in N.E.D. (1907)) (regularly becoming /ɔː/ in British English in the course of the 20th cent.) are not recorded with any frequency before the late 18th cent.

  21. Before writing that, I checked m-w.com, which has only /pɔr/ for pour and pore, but both /pʊr/ and /pɔr/ for poor.

  22. Eli Nelson says:

    Yeah, other words that unexpectedly have /ɔ/ instead of /ʊə/ in RP are “door,” “floor” and “whore.”

    so it’s a gradient like the GOOSE > FOOT shift, where more and more words are apparently GOOSE the farther north you go in England?

    It’s definitely a gradient to some degree, although I don’t know which areas have which pronunciations.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    “door,” “floor” and “whore.”

    *facepalm* Of course. Also moor (as in Dartmoor, Exmoor – [Low] German Moor “bog” – and the surname Moore if that’s related).

  24. door, floor, whore are all NORTH=FORCE nowadays, but moor is CURE for people who don’t merge the two, like me. The CURE pronunciation (which is regularly derived) of whore (cf. Hure) persists in non-standard speech: I had an English professor who used it. When written, it’s spelled hoor. Etymonline thinks the modern pronunciation is the result of contamination from ME hore ‘filth, slime’; the w is unetymological altogether.

    Moore has many sources: moor, Moor (swarthy person), O Morda, de Mora (Irish and Norman-Irish), de la Mare (Norman < Old Norse mœrr ‘sea, coastal district’).

  25. Rodger C says:

    I think the pronunciation of poor to rhyme with sure used to be considered prestige, for no very good reason, at least where I came from. In high school I heard a choir from a rural school sing a chorus of the last stanza of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus’ (“Bring me your tired,” etc.), and their director had taught them to pronounce “poor” that way (indeed with a painfully cardinal [u]) in spite of the fact that Lazarus rhymed it with “shore” and “door.” I experienced it as painfully affected and ignorantly pseudo-elegant.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    Fascinating.

  27. I think the pronunciation of poor to rhyme with sure used to be considered prestige

    Probably because it is historical/traditional. The OED1 (1907) lists CURE first and FORCE second, and says about the etymology (compare with the above OED3 text):

    On account of the ambiguity of the letter u and its variant v before 1600, it is uncertain whether ME. pouere, poure, pouer, meant pou- or pov-. The phonetic series paupere(m, paupre, paubre, pobre, povre, shows that povre preceded poure, which may have been reached in late OF., and is the form in various mod.F. dialects. But the 15th and early 16th c. literary Fr. form was povre, artificially spelt in 15th c. pauvre, after L. pauper, and ME. pōre (the source of mod.Eng. poor) seems to have been reduced from povre like o’er from over, lord from loverd. Cf. also poortith, porail, poverty. But some Eng. dialects now have pour (paʊr), which prob. represents ME. pour (puːr).

  28. Hoor was used prominently by Michael Imperioli’s character on The Sopranos. Most of the actors on that show were (mercifully) from the greater NYC area, but tended to exaggerate the accent for their roles.

    Myself, I say poor, Moore, etc. with the CURE vowel* – and my impression is that this distinction is somewhat more vital here in the US than in the UK. That said, forcing people to pronounce something in a non-native way which goes against the rhyme scheme of a poem is pretty ridiculous. It reminds me of a pedantic English teacher I once had, who, when explaining the concept alliteration, told us flatly that a w- word and a wh- cannot constitute an example of it. It doesn’t matter if the author and reader both pronounce those identically (as one would expect, since the vast majority of English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic do just that); the two sounds differ in her Platonic ideal of English and can never converge. To my recollection she was literally the only person in the entire school who distiguished those, and since she wasn’t Southern I suspect that it was a learned habit.

    *Which may not be the aptest name itself, since cure, sure and similar words have shifted to NURSE for many Americans and to NORTH/FORCE for many Brits.

  29. David Marjanović says:

    and since she wasn’t Southern I suspect that it was a learned habit.

    I thought this distinction didn’t have much of a clear geographic distribution in the US? I know a born & bred Marylander who has it, and Elizabeth Warren uses it most of the time.

  30. Warren was born in Oklahoma in 1949, when the whole of the South, as well as the Northeast, was unmerged territory. In my experience, individuals tend to retain the feature if they have it: my wife (born in 1943 in North Carolina) not only has it but tends to hear it where it isn’t: it took me some time to convince her that I don’t have it except when I’m trying to be especially clear.

  31. Out on the farm, I’m known as the head hoer. Of course, since I’m the only one weeding with a hoe (deference to my age), I’ve gotta be head.

  32. I wonder if Rufus Thomas’s “Walking the Dog” represents another variation…

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