So I bit him.
Dear Word Detective: I don’t know if you get lots of emails with jokes of varying quality, some dubious and some hilarious, but I just got to the bottom of one (with the usual “scroll down,” “keep scrolling,” etc.) to find that it was a classic “shaggy dog” story. Then, of course, I wondered what a shaggy dog has got to do with a joke with a strange ending. Don’t know how many dogs you have in your menagerie of cats, but perhaps they could help.– David, Ripon, North Yorkshire.
I take it that you haven’t met many dogs. We have two, and the only thing they’ve ever done to “help” around here is to bark furiously when rabbits are massing to attack the house. If it weren’t for Doorbell and Barkie, I’d have been nibbled to death long ago.
I actually don’t get many joke-laden emails anymore, probably because the same people who send them also used to send me ridiculous urban legends. I would politely point out that said tales weren’t true, and I was rewarded by being deleted from their mailing lists. It’s a shame, because I really miss seeing all those rainbows and animated unicorns.
A “shaggy dog story” is a kind of joke that might best be called an anti-joke. It typically involves a long, excruciatingly detailed build-up leading, eventually, to a punchline that is only “funny” as a practical joke where the listener has been tricked into paying close attention to a long, pointless, unfunny story. The term “shaggy dog story” itself dates at least to the 1930s, as Esquire magazine printed an article about them in 1937.
There seems to be general agreement that “shaggy dog story” as a category of humor takes its name from an actual joke involving a shaggy dog, but opinions vary on what the joke itself might have been. My parents, William and Mary Morris, in their Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, traced the term to a story about an international competition to find the shaggiest dog in the world. Much pointless narration later, the winning dog is presented to the haughty fellow underwriting the quest, who declares, “I don’t think he’s so shaggy.” End of joke.
Another proposed original “shaggy dog” joke involves a man placing a very detailed “lost dog” advertisement for a shaggy dog, and answering his door a few days later to find a boy with a dog on a leash, who says, “You advertised a lost dog? Medium size?” “Yes,” says the man. “Light brown?” “Yes.” “Slight limp?” “Yes.” “Answers to Rex?” “Yes.” “Shaggy coat?” The man peers at the dog and says, “Not that shaggy.”
“Shaggy dog story” has also found wide use in the figurative sense of something that may be full of sound and fury but in the end signifies nothing. The soap opera twist of explaining an exceedingly improbable plot line with “it was only a dream” is a classic “shaggy dog” gambit. And the films of M. Night Shyamalan (The Village, The Happening, et al.), which often rely on a sort of “deus ex cornball” final twist, are so routinely labeled “shaggy dog stories” by critics (“The whole enterprise is a shaggy dog story,” Roger Ebert, 2004) that a lesser (or lower-paid) director would have thrown in the towel long ago.