dog in the manger

A “dog in the manger” is a person who keeps something that they do not actually want in order to prevent someone else from getting it.

The story of The Dog in the Manger derives from an old Greek fable which comes to us in several different versions. The short form: “There was a dog lying in a manger who did not eat the grain, but who nevertheless prevented the horse from being able to eat anything either.”

This fable sums up the behavior of certain humans so well that “dog in the manger” has been used to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “A churlish person who will neither use something himself nor let another use it” since the 1500s.

Although the story was ascribed to Aesop’s Fables in the 1400s, there is no ancient source that does so. There were, however, earlier 1300s poetic references to the fable. In John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (c.1390) it is related:

Though it be not the hound’s habit
To eat chaff, yet will he warn off
An ox that commeth to the barn
Thereof to take up any food.

Modern scholarship doesn’t give much credence to the idea that Aesop’s Fables were written by him at all. Accounts of Aesop’s life date from long after his death and some scholars doubt that there ever was a real Aesop. If he existed at all, it was as an editor of earlier Greek and Sumerian stories rather than as the writer of them.

But, after the production of the Gutenberg Bible in the 1450s, European printers wanted other suitable works to print. They apparently decided that providing the common herd with uplifting moral tales of Aesop would be an appropriate education. The German printer Heinrich Steinhowel set to the task and printed the first German version in 1480.

Popular artistic allusions to the fable, or the idiom arising from it, were especially common during the 1800s. Such work, bordering on the cartoon, provided a profitable avenue for social commentary.

The phrase is still used to refer to any churlish behavior of the “spoilsport” sort.

I want to know why the author who wrote the fable The Dog in the Manger thought it was uplifting. 

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  One thought on “dog in the manger

  1. June 24, 2020 at 7:23 am

    Uplifting …. odd word I agree. My mum used to use the expression “dog in the manger” – it is such a very apt phrase. You know immediately what someone means when they use it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. June 24, 2020 at 9:48 pm

    I suspect “uplifting” meant intended to be morally improving, rather than funny or mood-improving.

    Liked by 1 person

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