shaggy dog story.
There is a surprising amount of dispute not only as to the origin of this phrase, but also as to exactly what a shaggy dog story is. The typical definition has it as a long, drawn out story that is both pointless and anticlimactic. This version is sometimes accompanied by the description that a shaggy dog is a story that the teller finds humorous or significant, while the listener experiences it as boring and inane. However, there is another flavor of tale that also claims the moniker, as noted by Alan Combs in his archive. These stories may be equally drawn out and equally inane, however they end with a pun or a spoonerism. One internet site even goes so far as to propose such a story as the “original.” It is a joke I have heard often, which ends with the line, “I couldn't send a knight out on a dog like this.”
There is even a monograph published in 1953 on the shaggy dog story, called (rather uninspiredly) The 'Shaggy Dog' Story, Its Origin, Development and Nature, by the eminent etymologist Eric Partridge. I haven't yet read it, but I am sure it's definitive. Fortunately Michael Quinion has done the reading for us. He says that Partridge's ur-shaggy dog story is not the one about a knight and his dog. He gives us two versions, both beginning with an advertisement in the Times (of London, not New York) seeking a shaggy dog. The punch line, such as it is, is either that the dog produced is not shaggy enough or not all that shaggy. Since Partridge has a far better developed sense of humor than William and Mary Morris, I will go with his version, which is the second.
I have to be honest and say that, like Alan Combs, my first encounter with these stories was in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which had a series know as, “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot.” As a borderline participant in science fiction fandom in the seventies, I learned to call such tales “feghoots” and so abandoned the shaggy descriptor. As an adolescent, I found the irreverence and word-play quite clever. Now I prefer my puns to come in smaller packages and to be more spontaneous than these lengthy and carefully constructed ones.
1. Neufeldt, Victoria, ed. 1994. Webster's New World Dictionary of American English. 3rd College Edition ed. New York: Prentice Hall. 1231.
2. Combs, Alan B. 1995. In Defense of Shaggy Dog Stories. Tarzan's Tripes Forever, and Other Feghoots The Web's First Shaggy Dog Story Archive. Austin Web Publishing Co. Accessed Sep 20 2001 from http://www.awpi.com/ Combs/Shaggy/.
3. Bofinger, Mark. 2001. Shaggy Dog Stories. Accessed Sep 20 2001 from http:// www.csee.uq.edu.au/ ~bof/ Shaggydog/ intro.html.
4. Quinion, Michael. 1999. Shaggy Dog Story. World Wide Words. Accessed Sep 20 2001 from http:// www.quinion.com/ words/ qa/ qa-sha1.htm.
|About the illustrations: Figure 1 shows Shaggy Dog, a character on “Mr. Zing and Tuffy,” a television show produced in Tulsa in the early sixties. Shaggy, played by Tom Ledbetter, was a late addition to the show. Even though the character has nothing to do with stories, he is, in effect, in a story. The web site about this television show, Tulsa TV Memories is quite wonderful. Used with permission.
Figure 2 is a fantastic storyteller! By KAM, used with permission.