How many people are familiar with the phrase “screwed the pooch”? I remember it from childhood, but I don’t know when I first heard it. The only distinct example I can recall is from a scene in the movie Stand By Me (1986):
Teddy: Ha ha, Gordie loses! You lose Gordie! Ol’ Gordie just screwed the pooch!
Gordie: Does the word “retarded” mean anything to you?
Teddy: Gordie, go get the food, you morphodite.
Gordie: Don’t call me any of your mother’s pet names.
Teddy: You’re a real wet end, Lachance.
Gordie: Shut up.
Teddy, Vern, Chris: I don’t shut up. I grow up. And when I look at you, I throw up. Aghhh!
Gordie: And then your mom goes around the corner and she licks it up.
Oh, what great movie!
(On a side note, my father’s childhood was at the same time as the setting of Stand By Me. He doesn’t remember that term at all. Also, he didn’t like that movie. Go figure.)
What got me thinking about that is a recent WSJ article, The Pedigree Of a Naughty ‘Pooch’, by Ben Zimmer. He begins his piece by mentioning a recent ‘shocking’ use of this phrase in the MSM:
“Last month, appearing on “Face the Nation,” CBS News foreign correspondent Clarissa Ward used an expression that raised some eyebrows. Referring to the Obama administration’s difficulty in identifying elements to support in Syria’s civil war, Ms. Ward bluntly said, “We have royally screwed the pooch on that front.” Media watchdog Jim Romenesko posted Ward’s comment on his blog under the headline, “Did she really say that on ‘Face the Nation’!?””
What delicate sensibilities of the MSM elite. Just imagine if anyone ever ripped a big fart like in that interview scene from Step Brothers. That would be awesome! Would WSJ write an article about it explaining the history behind it?
Anyway, Zimmer offered a nice explanation for “screwed the pooch”. “Many Americans,” he suggests,
“were introduced to the expression in “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe’s 1979 account of the country’s first astronauts in the Mercury Project. In the book, “screw the pooch” is linked with Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, pilot of the second Mercury flight. After a hatch accident on splashdown, Mr. Grissom insisted the error wasn’t his fault: He didn’t “screw the pooch.””
The book was then made into a movie in 1983. So, that was prior to Stand By Me.
As for the origins of the phrase itself, the author traces it to an anecdote told by Joseph L. “Jack” May. Here is how Zimmer tells it, as based on May’s memoir:
“In spring 1950, one of his roommates was an architecture student named John Rawlings, an artistically talented Indianapolis boy. Mr. May remembered chastising Rawlings for procrastinating on a final class project. “You’re late, John, you’re fouling up,” he recalls saying, followed by an obscene reference to a dog. (The expression had often been used in the military to mean “to goof off.”)
“After Mr. Rawlings complained about the vulgar language, Mr. May replied, “Is this better? You’re screwing the pooch.” Mr. Rawlings laughed uproariously.
“Mr. Rawlings, who would find fame as a modern-dance designer, enlisted after graduation in the Air Force and was sent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. There he helped design space suits for the chimpanzees eventually sent in advance of manned space missions.”
There ya go. Another puzzle solved. Back to The Mystery Machine, Scooby!
(By the way, I tried to quote from the movie scene in a comment to the WSJ article, but it wouldn’t post because of the automatic censoring. A message came up saying that my comment didn’t meet community standards. This apparently means their article didn’t meet their own community standards. How shocking!)