tail wagging the dog. Situation in which an apparently insignificant or powerless entity controls the larger system of which it is a part.
The phrase “the tail that wags the dog” dates to the turn of the last century. In 1907, it appeared in Von Arnum's Fraulein Schmidt. F. Scott Fitzgerald used it in 1935. The meaning is quite obvious: the subsidiary part controls the major part. In its most current usage, the case is of the media creating the crisis instead of the crisis generating media interest.
A headline in Real Commentary from TheStreet.com makes it a bit more concrete: “The Fed: Once Again, It's Time to Wag the Dog” referring to Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan's purported sway on the economy. In a New York Times article, the implication that the tail has special leverage is more apparent: “When suppliers finance buying groups 'you get the tail wagging the dog,' [R. David] Nelson said.”
This phrase entered the legal lexicon in 1986 with McMillan v. Pennsylvania, a significant case regarding sentencing statutes. In the majority opinion then Associate Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist wrote, “The statute gives no impression of having been tailored to permit the visible possession finding to be a tail which wags the dog of the substantive offense.” In so saying the Court “seemed to warn against a statutory scheme in which the enhancement is far greater than the underlying punishment.” In other words, McMillan held that sentencing guidelines which call for extensions of prison terms based on aggravating factors cannot result in an extension longer than the sentence for the original crime. Are you with me? For instance, a tagger might get six months at most for spray painting a wall, even if she is a repeat offender; the sentencing judge cannot add six years because she has determined that the graffiti constituted (sentence enhancing) hate speech unless, and only if, the jury previously concluded that the content was in fact hate speech. The concept and what is now referred to as “the canine metaphor” were solidified in Blakely v. Washington in 2004 and US v. Booker in 2005. In announcing the opinion in Blakely, its author, Antonin Scalia, declares without equivocation, though with a bit of a hitch in his voice, “The tail cannot wag the dog.” Click the sound icon to hear Justice Scalia.
On a lighter note, S.J. Perelman, a U.S. humorist, spoonerized the phrase after supposedly escaping the attentions of a group of prostitutes. “It was a case of the tail dogging the wag.” In this case the word “wag” is an antiquated reference to a witty person.
1. Wilton, David. 2001. Wilton's Word & Phrase Origins. wordorigins.org. Accessed Oct 25 2001 from http:// www.wordorigins.org/.
2. Fitzpatrick, Dan. 2002. The Fed: Once Again, It's Time to Wag the Dog. TheStreet.com. Accessed Feb 19 2002 from http:// biz.yahoo.com/ tsp/020129/ 10007600_1.html
3. Bogdanich, Walt. 2002. 2 Powerful Groups Hold Sway over Buying at Many Hospitals. New York Times, Mar 4. Accessed Mar 6 2002 from http:// www.nytimes.com/ 2002/03/04/ business/ 04BUY.html.
4. Stith, Kate, and José A. Cabranes. 1998. Fear of Judging: Sentencing Guidelines in the Federal Courts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 242.
5. Priester, Benjamin J. 2007. The Canine Metaphor and the Future of Sentencing Reform: Dogs, Tails, and the Constitutional Law of Wagging. SMU Law Review 61 (1).
6. Scalia, Antonin. 2004. Blakely V. Washington - Opinion Announcement. oyez.com. The Oyez Project. Accessed Jul 25 2009 from http:// www.oyez.org/ cases/2000-2009/ 2003/ 2003_02_1632/ opinion.
7. Martin, Gary J., ed. 2001. The Phrase Finder. Sheffield Hallam University. Accessed August 26 2001 from http:// www.shu.ac.uk/web-admin/ phrases/
About the illustrations: Figure 1 shows Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman in the Hollywood film: Wag the Dog. The film provides a provocative look at the possibilities for manipulating the media as a part of the process of wagging the dog. This image is excerpted from a poster, and the copyright for it is most likely owned by either the publisher or the creator of the work depicted. I believe that the use of scaled-down, low-resolution images of posters to provide critical commentary on the film in question or of the poster itself qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.
Figure 2 is Justice Antonin Scalia; this is his official portrait. Well, I just cropped it a bit to make him seem more sinister. I especially like this image because on first glance I thought those were a pair of handcuffs he was holding. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.