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figure 1  

 

dog in the manger. One who selfishly hoards something that he or she does not personally need or use.

The Oxford English Dictionary specifically names such a person as “churlish” and says it's been in use since the 16th century.reference 1 This reference plays on the stereotype of dogs being selfish, which is as prominent as the one of their being selfless. The phrase comes from one of Æsop's fables. “A dog lay in a manger, and by his growling and snapping prevented the oxen from eating the hay which had been placed for them. ‘What a selfish dog!’ said one of them to his companions, ‘He cannot eat the hay himself, and yet refuses to allow those to eat who can.’”reference 2

1. The Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. (3d ed.) Oxford University Press. Accessed from http://dictionary.oed.com.

2. Aesop and Milo Winter. 1947. The Aesop for Children. New York: Checkerboard Press.

We all know people like that, or at least some who seem like that. And, it is worth digging a bit deeper. These fables are intentionally teaching stories, in which are inscribed assumptions about appropriate behavior. The use of “dog,” as is often the case, implies that one so named is of questionable personhood because of his or her actions.

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illustration of a dog in a manger barking at some cows spacer
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To Æsop, this dog represents someone who prevents others from enjoying that which he or she has no use for. This is considered a utilitarian point of view; at least most commentaries on the tale limit their scope to the strictly material value of the straw. Indeed, it seems to be a concrete example of a maxim of socialism which I learned as a child: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Looking further, however, I see an unexamined assumption that the utility of straw—from mangers or otherwise—is singular and self evident. While interpretations, such as the OED's, describe the dog as selfish and stingy, what do we really know of the dog's intentions? The dog might not have been using the manger or the straw in it in the way that the oxen would, but perhaps he was using it, say to get some much needed rest or to fill some impenetrable doggy need. And what if old Farmer Brown told his faithful servant Dog, “Guard the hay so that it will last all winter!” to prevent the oxen from starving before spring? The dog is cast, a priori, as selfish, and his side of the story, it seems, need not be told.

Finally the emphasis on the materiality and utility of the straw either ignores or excludes any consideration of the social dynamic or the role of power. The denial of something that another desires may serve the denier in any number of ways, thus being “useful” to him or her, if only indirectly. Power over others and self aggrandizement are only the most obvious uses of denying something to others that they need.
 
drawing of yellow official-looking sheets
figure 3  
dog-in-the-manger policy. Roget's places this term next to things like “closed shop,” and “monopoly” in the category of Exclusion.reference 3

 

3. Lloyd, Susan M., ed. 1982. Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases. New ed. ed. Essex, Eng.: Longman.

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About the illustrations: Figure 1 shows an excerpt from the cover of the Harper's Weekly in which President William Jennings Bryan is depicted as a dog in the manger.reference 4 The image is in the public domain because the copyright has expired.

Figure 2 shows an illustration by Milo Winter of the dog in the manger.reference 5 © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.

Figure 3 is a piece of clip art. © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.

4. Rogers, W. A. 1904. The Dog in the Manger. Harper's Weekly, Feb 6, cover.

5. Aesop, and Milo Winter. 1947. The Aesop for Children. New York: Checkerboard Press.

see also: yellow dog contract Last updated: July 5, 2008
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