In a recent “Word on the Street” column for the Wall Street Journal, I wrote about the rather evocative expression “screw the pooch,” meaning “to commit an embarrassing mistake.” But due to the constraints of space and journalistic propriety, I was unable to tell the whole colorful story. Lexicon Valley, on the other hand, imposes no such constraints. So here goes.
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?
We almost certainly owe the popularity of the expression to Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff, which is about the Mercury space program, and its 1983 film adaptation. In the movie, when Gus Grissom (played by Fred Ward) is about to become the second American in space, his fellow astronaut Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) presciently warns him, “Just make sure you don’t screw the pooch, Gus.”
After the splashdown of Grissom’s capsule, Liberty Bell 7, the explosive bolts unexpectedly blew off, requiring a messy rescue operation. Many wondered whether Grissom himself was to blame for the error. Did he “screw the pooch”? (The movie unfairly implies that he did.)
Although Wolfe was ostensibly documenting the language of the test pilots who became Mercury astronauts in the early ‘60s, it is surprisingly difficult to find evidence of “screw the pooch” before the publication of The Right Stuff. Nevertheless, dictionaries of American slang recognize that “screw the pooch” must have developed as a euphemism for an older military vulgarism: “fuck the dog.”
In The F-Word, lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower gives examples of “fuck the dog” dating back to 1935, when it appeared in Jack Conroy’s novel A World to Win. And there are even a couple of examples from the World War I era that refer to the expression obliquely, in the more decorous, and therefore more printable, versions “feed the dog” and “walk the dog.”
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.”
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.”
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)
Rawlings, May explained, did manage to finish the project and graduate, enlisting in the Air Force and serving at Wright-Patterson Air Force base. There, he worked on designing early prototypes of space suits that were used on the chimpanzees to be launched into space in advance of NASA’s manned missions. So when May saw The Right Stuff in 1983 and heard “screw the pooch,” he was convinced that his old college pal Rawlings had been the one to introduce it to the space program.
Unfortunately, by the time the movie came out, Rawlings had died, succumbing to a heart attack on Dec. 23, 1980. A New York Times obituary traced his career after the stint in the Air Force: studying dance with Martha Graham, collaborating with modern-dance choreographer Paul Taylor as a designer, publishing both poetry and prose, and teaching at Cooper Union, Parsons School of Design, and Hunter College. He was, in May’s words, “a remarkable man.”
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.
In his book New York in the ‘50s, Dan Wakefield remembers how Rawlings, a high school friend, thrived in the Greenwich Village scene as a writer, musician, and artist. He befriended sculptor Alexander Calder, as well as e.e. cummings, the inspiration for his Yale production. At night he’d accompany himself on piano at a midtown nightclub, where he was billed as the Playing Mantis.
We will likely never know for sure if Rawlings was solely responsible for bringing “screw the pooch” into use in NASA circles. It’s not impossible, after all, for various military personnel to have independently transformed “fuck the dog” into “screw the pooch” on separate occasions. After my Wall Street Journal column was published, former Navy Lieutenant Commander Arthur P. Menard wrote in to say that he recalled “screw the pooch” being used to describe fatal crashes in 1959, when he was a midshipman aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, and again in 1960 in flight school in Pensacola. He described it as “black humor in the Naval air arm for a very unfunny incident.”
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.