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Dog in the manger

Q From Melinda White: Can you explain the term dog in the manger? I have heard it used referring to a person and gather it is derogatory — not sure what it means exactly.

A Someone who has a dog-in-the-manger attitude has something of value that he cannot or will not use himself but which he won’t let anybody else have either.

An example might be an ex-husband who takes extreme steps to prevent his ex-wife from forming an attachment to another man, out of an unreasonable feeling that “if I can’t have her, nobody shall”. Other examples might be a driver who never passes anybody else but also never allows anybody else to pass him, or a man who has some bricks left over after a job on his house but throws them away rather than give them to his neighbour. A recent example appeared in an article from the Africa News Service: “I have come to understand that he is the quintessential dog in the manger. Either he gets his object of pursuit or it is destroyed. It cannot go to any other contestant”.

The allusion is to one of Aesop’s fables, written about 600BC, in which a dog was taking a nap in a manger. When an ox came and tried to eat the hay in the manger, the dog barked furiously, snapped at him and wouldn’t let him get at his food, food that, of course, was useless to the dog. At last the ox gave up and went away muttering, “Ah, people often grudge others what they cannot enjoy themselves”.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 12 Apr. 2003

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 12 April 2003.