Does it mean to screw the pooch? Surprising Answer

One of the last s of Liberty Bell 7 (Mercury-Redstone 4) before it sank beneath the waves on 21 July 1961. The capsule sank when the explosive bolts on its hatch blew prematurely. At the time, many blamed Astronaut Gus Grissom for screwing the pooch on this, the second US crewed spaceflight, but more recent evidence has shown it was a mechanical malfunction, not Grissom, that resulted in the capsule’s loss. The capsule was recovered from the ocean floor in 1999.

And finally, the next year Tom Wolfe uses the phrase in The Right Stuff, about the sinking of Astronaut Gus Grissom’s capsule following the second US crewed spaceflight on 21 July 1961. At the time, it was thought that Grissom had prematurely fired the explosive bolts to open the capsule’s hatch after splashdown, allowing water to pour in, sinking the capsule and almost drowning Grissom. More recent evidence has shown that the bolts were blown by mechanical failure and that Grissom had not erred. In a chapter titled The Unscrewable Pooch, Wolfe writes:

Screw the pooch was made famous by Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff, about the Project Mercury astronauts, but that book was not the first use of the phrase. Screw the pooch is a euphemistic form of the phrase fuck the dog. The latter originally meant to loaf, to goof off, to shirk one’s work, and it comes out of World War I soldier slang. The underlying metaphor is in doing something one is not supposed to be doing. Some decades later, a second sense developed, that is to make a disastrous mistake, to fail, and the screw the pooch wording has only this second sense.

And by 1962 we get an example of fuck the dog clearly being used in the sense of to screw up, to make a big mistake. It appears in John Oliver Killens’s novel And Then We Heard the Thunder. While the book was written in the early 1960s, the context of the phrase’s use is during World War II:

But where did the enjoyably assonant “screw the pooch” come from and how did the Mercury astronauts end up using it? 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.” Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement

Whether the action was feeding, walking, or fornicating, though, all of these early examples were used to mean “to loaf around” or “to waste time” (dogs have often been associated with laziness, as in the expression “dogging it”). Later on, possibly around World War II, “fucking the dog” and its euphemistic equivalents took on a secondary meaning of “blundering.”

Remarkable indeed. In 1945, when still a high school student in Indianapolis, a Life Magazine photo spread showed the gangly Rawlings (“16 years old and 6 ft. 6 ¼ in. tall”) rehearsing a “neo-Egyptian production” that he had written called My Mummy Done Ptolemy. The movie producer David O. Selznick spotted the Life pictorial, and, struck by Rawlings’ punny way with words, brought him to Hollywood that summer to work on the screenplay for A Duel in the Sun. Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement

It was last month when I first started poking around into the history of the expression, after CBS News foreign correspondent Clarissa Ward, while discussing President Obama’s Syria policy, used it on Face the Nation. Media blogger Jim Romenesko later expressed surprise, guessing that Ward might be the first guest ever to utter the phrase on that historically staid program. It’s self-evident, after all, that there is something a tad racy about “screw the pooch.” But could it really have something to do with, well, pooch-screwing? Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement Advertisement

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.

May goes on to explain that Rawlings enlisted in the Air Force and helped design early prototypes of space suits for chimpanzees on NASA missions. When May saw the film of The Right Stuff in 1983 and heard “screw the pooch,” he was convinced that Rawlings had introduced the expression to the space program. However, May couldn’t confirm this, since Rawlings had died in 1980.

“The accident board convened, took weeks to gather its findings, took months to file a report, and finally confirmed what everyone had assumed: pilot error rather than equipment failure. The betting in the office on the Apollo 17 crew had long since switched—aviators characteristically do not wait for the accident report—‘That sure cinches it for Dick,’ the refrain went. ‘Ol’ Gene just screwed the pooch.’ ”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, suggests that “screw the pooch” may “perhaps” be derived from the “coarse slang” American expression “fuck the dog,” which it defines as “(a) to shirk one’s duties or responsibilities; to mess about or waste time; (b) to make a (disastrous) mistake; to fail; to spoil or put an end to something.”

What does screw the pooch mean?