On Dogs Catching Vehicles

Screen Shot 2017-01-18 at 2.12.46 PMIn Texas this month for the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society, I picked up a copy of the local alternative weekly, The Austin Chronicle. It turned out to be the year-in-review issue. Chosen as Quote of the Year was a sentence uttered by Matt Mackowiak, identified as a “GOP strategist,” on November 10: “Donald Trump is the dog that caught the car.”

Not only was it a great quote, but it was already on my mind: Even before I got to Austin, I felt as if I were hearing versions of it everywhere — mostly related to the Affordable Care Act, aka the ACA, aka Obamacare.

A Google News search confirmed my sense. On November 30, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer was quoted in The Washington Post, referring to Republican members of Congress: “I think they will be like the dog that caught the bus. They’re stuck, and that’s why they don’t have a solution.” In a December 31 Associated Press article, a health-care advocate picked up the metaphor but altered the vehicle: ”Republicans don’t fully appreciate the implications of even a partial repeal of the ACA. People use the analogy of the dog that caught the car.”

By the second week of January, Republicans were being compared to “the proverbial dog that caught the car” (National Review, January 11), and the analogy was spreading: “In many ways, the Trump administration is like the dog that caught the car. They’ve been blasting VA for two years. Now they’ve got to run it” (veterans activist Paul Rieckhoff, on NPR, January 11).

So were all these people just riffing on Matt Mackowiak’s invention? Well, no. A blog called Modern Healthcare used the analogy the day before he did. And, in fact, the metaphor has a long history. It first appears in the database, rather clunkily, via a January 1964 article in the Idaho State Journal. An unnamed “Minneapolis milling firm executive” is said to have

blasted the federal government for what he called agricultural restrictions which resemble a dog chasing a car.

“If he ever caught the car, he wouldn’t know how to drive it…. The same thing applies to agricultural allotments, subsidies and other controls.”

In the book Augustine’s Laws, Norman R. Augustine, referring to an aerospace company, observed, “In fact, Daedalus’ s top management looked a bit like the dog that caught the car.” (Google Books credits this to a 1997 edition, though apparently Augustine published the book as early as 1984.) The first use of the phrase in the ProQuest database of newspapers is from the Austin American-Statesman, in December 1990: “All the victorious politicos are euphoric now. But so many super-serious problems face the state that in six months our newly elected officials will feel like ‘the dog that caught the car.’” In 1998, The New York Times had, ”’I feel like the dog who caught the car,’ joked Mr. [Tom] Tancredo, a Republican state legislator from Colorado, about his election to a House of Representatives that is engulfed in all sorts of intrigue and chaos.”

By 2003, the phrase was sufficiently common for Congressional Quarterly to call it “one of the most oft-used metaphors to describe a big upset winner in politics.” In his 2013 book, The Case of the Missing Cutlery, Kevin Allen swapped in a novel vehicle: “I left feeling as if I was the dog that caught the firetruck.” In his annual letter to shareholders in 2015, Warren Buffett referred to the moment when he took over a failing textile company, Berkshire Hathaway: “I became the dog who caught the car.”

American politics has a peculiar fondness for dog references, as Maureen Dowd noted in the Times in 2002. In maxims alone, she catalogued: “That dog won’t hunt. We don’t have a dog in this fight. Attack-dog politics. Run with the big dogs. We’re like the dog that caught the bus. I’ll fight ’til the last dog dies. If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” And among Democrats are two canine groups: the blue dogs and the yellow dogs.

A dog catching a car is, of course, a metaphor. But what if you take the scenario literally? There are two possibilities. One: The car has slowed to a stop. No harm, no foul. Two: The dog catches up to the vehicle in the middle of traffic. In this version, the results are gory. One hopes that we won’t see a real-life version of Version 2 starting tomorrow. But one is not optimistic.




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