Shaggy Dog Story

P. J. Faulkner? W. Buck Taylor? Bennett Cerf? Eric Partridge? Mary Morris? William Morris? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A shaggy dog story is a rambling tale consisting of largely inconsequential events that ends with an anticlimax or an unfunny punchline. Would you please explore the origin of the shaggy dog story?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in “The Cincinnati Post” of Ohio in January 1906. QI conjectures that P. J. Faulkner who worked for the O’Dell Stock and Grain Company in Cincinnati presented the first shaggy dog story. Faulkner believed that his tale was hilarious, but his companions were angered by its pointlessness. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1906 January 03, The Cincinnati Post, Advertises for a Dog and Gets One All Right, Quote Page 4, Column 4 and 5, Cincinnati, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

Faulkner was in a down-town cafe with some friends. He told them a story. “Did you ever hear the story of the shaggy dog?” he inquired.
“No!” they came back.
“No?” said he.
“No-o,” said they.

“Well, James Fernorten wanted a shaggy dog, and—Oh! but it’s funny!” (Much laughter by Faulkner. Friends glum.)

“So he went to his friend Mike, who, he had heard, had one.

“Gee! It’s funny!! (More laughter from Faulkner. Friends glummer.)

“But Mike’s dog. though shaggy some, was not so shaggy!” (Ha-ha-ha-he-he-ho-ho by Faulkner. Silence by friends.)

“Ain’t it funny?” he asked.
“We don’t see it,” said the friends innocently.
“Well, listen,” Faulkner went on.

“You see James Fernorten wanted a shaggy dog, and—Oh, but it’s funny!” (Much laughter by Faulkner. Friends still glum.)

Faulkner’s unhappy friends decided to creatively retaliate against him by placing an advertisement in a local paper. Details within the ad were carefully chosen to reflect the insipid story they found so aggravating:

Dog—shaggy dog; must be either black or brown, but not too shaggy; will pay good price. P. J. Faulkner, 3229 Fredonia-av., Avondale.

The ad was remarkably successful in eliciting responses, and Faulkner’s home was overwhelmed with miscellaneous dogs:

Dogs big, dogs small, dogs mangy, dogs shaggy, dogs hairless, sightless and lame; dogs white, dogs black, dogs brown and dogs spotted, dingy and faded; dogs fat, dogs lean, dogs barking and dogs with tin cans tied to tails—dogs, dogs, DOGS. They came to his house all day.

In addition, many dogs were offered to Faulkner by phone, and the exhausted man eventually decided to flee his home.

This article appeared in other newspapers such as “The Denver Post” of Colorado[ref] 1906 January 08, The Denver Post, Victim of Dog Trick, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank) [/ref] which acknowledged the Cincinnati paper.

The article presented two shaggy dog tales with one nested inside the other. Faulkner told the first humorless tale, and a journalist told the second tale of comeuppance. The combination of the dual narratives was memorable, but over time the text evolved into a single story as shown below

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1908 the “New York Morning Telegraph” published a story that combined key elements from the two original tales. One: A newspaper published an advertisement requesting a shaggy dog. Two: A narrative employed a weak punchline about the shagginess of a dog.  The “Telegraph” story was reprinted with acknowledgement in several newspapers including “The Salt Lake Herald” of Utah,[ref] 1908 June 7, The Salt Lake Herald, A Hard Luck Story (Acknowledgment to “New York Morning Telegraph”), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Newspapers_com) [/ref] “The Daily Notes” of Pennsylvania,[ref] 1908 July 1, The Daily Notes, Used As Fate’s Plaything (Acknowledgment to “New York Morning Telegraph”) Quote Page 4, Column 3, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) [/ref] and “The Lincoln Evening News” of Nebraska.

The story began with the description of an unfortunate man in Brooklyn, New York:[ref] 1908 May 29, Lincoln Journal Star, A Hard Luck Story (Acknowledgment to “New York Morning Telegraph”) Quote Page 7, Column 6 and 7, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

He had been down on his luck for some time, and a few days ago had exhausted his money, with the exception of a solitary nickel. In a newspaper office where he went to look over the “Help Wanted” list he saw an advertisement to the effect that a man living near One Hundred and Twenty-fifth street, Harlem, wanted to purchase a shaggy dog.

The impoverished Brooklyn man was the owner of a lovely shaggy dog, and he realized that would have to give up the dog. So the pair embarked on the journey to Harlem on foot:

It was a long and tiresome trip. The dog was panting, and the man had to stop every now and then for rest, but finally he reached the place designated. The man rang the bell and inquired for the advertiser. Dogs are not allowed in the house, so the Brooklynite had to wait in the hall, his heart beating hopefully and the faithful dog looking up at him. as if wondering what was going to happen. It may have been five minutes, but it seemed an hour to the anxious man before the advertiser stepped out of the elevator. The suspense was soon over.

“You’re Mr. So and So, who advertised for a shaggy dog?”
“Well, here’s the dog.”
“‘Tain’t shaggy enough.” And the advertiser turned away.

In 1911 the “Fort Worth Star-Telegram” published an article about W. Buck Taylor of Boatmen’s Bank in St. Louis, Missouri. Taylor’s role in the article matched that of P. J. Faulkner in the 1906 piece:[ref] 1911 February 22, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Sidelights on the Bankers, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Fort Worth, Texas. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

The point is that Mr. Taylor’s hobby is telling a story about a man advertising for a dog and telling the boy that brought one, “That is not my dog; that dog is too shaggy.” The story is pointless and the teller tells it over and over while the party that has heard it thousands of times applauds with mirthless laughter.

The banker’s colleagues retaliated by running an advertisement “appealing for the return of a shaggy dog and asking that it be sent to Buck Taylor at the Westbrook hotel”. People hoping to earn a reward brought many candidate shaggy dogs to the hotel, and the pranksters were gleeful.

In 1918 the phrase “Shaggy dog story” appeared in a column about New York theatre shows published in the “South Bend News-Times” of South Bend, Indiana:[ref] 1918 September 22, South Bend News-Times, In the New York Theatres by Emory B. Calvert, Section 2, Start Page 5, Quote Page 6 Column 1, South Bend, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

The next scene reveals the superior court at Reno, which really isn’t so darn superior, as the fellow said about the shaggy dog. (Note—Shaggy dog story will be mailed on application to editor.)

In 1940 a newspaper in Ogden, Utah published a compressed story that roughly fit the outline of the 1908 tale. But the distance travelled to reach the advertiser was considerable larger:[ref] 1940 September 5, The Ogden Standard-Examiner, Sol’s Sunshine and Shadow, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Ogden, Utah. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Once upon a time there was an Englishman in New York and he lost his great big dog. He mourned and mourned and at last offered a reward and to pay expenses to England if anyone found his dog. At last an American found the big dog and took it with him to England and the Englishman’s home. He knocked on the door and said: “Did you lose a great big, shaggy dog?” The Englishman looked at him and said, “He wasn’t so shaggy.”

In 1943 the prominent publisher and quotation collector Bennett Cerf writing in “The Saturday Review” offered a cursory definition of the shaggy dog story:[ref] 1943 April 3, The Saturday Review, Trade Winds by Bennett Cerf, Start Page 18, Quote Page 18 and 19, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz) [/ref]

Shaggy dog stories, as all of you must know by this time, are the kind of tales in which animals talk, or the punch lines make no sense at all.

Cerf continued by presenting a primordial version of the tale:

A Kansas City barfly picked up a year-old copy of the London Times one day—don’t ask me how it got there—and found therein a personal ad offering a handsome reward for the return of a very shaggy dog to its bereft owner in Bishop’s Bowes, Essex.

The reward seeker stumbled across a remarkably shaggy pup, and he made the long journey to England. Yet, when he reached the door of the lady who placed the ad he was disappointed:

“Didn’t you say you had lost a shaggy dog?” said the man, holding up the pooch. “I think I’ve found it for you.” “Heavens, no,” snapped the lady. “It wasn’t that shaggy”—and slammed the door in his face.

In 1953 lexicographer Eric Partridge published a book titled “The Shaggy Dog Story”, and he attempted to trace the origin of the term:[ref] 1958 Copyright, Cold Noses and Warm Hearts, Preface by Corey Ford, The Tale of the Shaggy Dog (Reprinted from “The Shaggy Dog Story” 1953) by Eric Partridge, Start Page 265, Quote Page 265 to 269, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

But the best explanation of the term is that it arose in a story very widely circulated only since 1942 or 1943, although it was apparently invented in the 1930’s.

QI has traced the origin farther back in time as shown previously in this article. The outline of the story presented by Partridge was similar to the version offered by Cerf although it was more elaborate and the details differed:

A householder in Park Lane had the great misfortune to lose a very valuable and rather shaggy dog. He advertised repeatedly in The Times, but without luck, and finally he abandoned hope.

A person in New York saw the ad, located a shaggy dog, and traveled to England. When the dog reached the house of the possible owner it was perfunctorily dismissed by the butler:

The butler came promptly; but, having glanced at the dog, he firmly shut the door after bowing—and exclaiming, in a horror-stricken voice, “But not so shaggy as that, sir!”

In 1977 linguistics researchers Mary and William Morris published “Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins” which included the following definition:[ref] 1977, Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by William Morris and Mary Morris, Entry: shaggy dog story, Quote Page 512 and 513, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

shaggy dog story is one that starts with a fairly improbable premise, builds suspense for a long time, adding detail upon detail, only to evaporate with a final throwaway anticlimax.

Morris’s version of the primal narrative did not begin with a lost dog; instead it commenced with a search for “the shaggiest dog”:

The first such tale began with an obscure ad in the Times of London: “Personal: Wealthy, titled lord lacks only one item to complete his collection of the world’s outstanding oddities: the shaggiest dog in the world. He is prepared to pay the sum of 5,000 pounds, together with all travel expenses, to the person who will deliver to him the shaggiest dog in the world.”

The most impressive candidate dog surfaced in Australia. The dog and its master accomplished the arduous journey to England via ship, and a massive crowd greeted them. A cab ride took them to the nobleman’s address:

As thousands cheered, they mounted the steps, were greeted by a footman, then ushered by a butler into a drawing room, where the man and shaggy dog waited before the fireplace. After a moment, the lord of the manor appeared, took one look at the dog, and said: “I don’t think he’s so shaggy.”

In conclusion, QI hypothesizes that the first shaggy dog story appeared in “The Cincinnati Post” of Ohio in 1906. There were actually two interconnected tales about shaggy dogs. One was attributed to P. J. Faulkner, and the other was written by an unnamed journalist. During subsequent decades the two tales were combined, and the details evolved. In addition, the label “shaggy dog story” was affixed to a category of tales with anticlimaxes and/or poor punchlines.

Image Notes: Picture of a shaggy dog from furry_portraits at Pixabay. Images have been cropped and resized.

Acknowledgements: This exploration was inspired by a mailing list discussion. Great thanks to the discussants Stephen Goranson, Jonathan Lighter, Wilson Gray, Peter Reitan, Joel Berson, and Robin Hamilton. Thanks to Stephen Goranson, Jonathan Lighter, Barry Popik, and Fred Shapiro who all pointed to the 1918 citation.

Update History: On January 2, 2023 the 1918 citation was added to the article.

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