The tail wagging the dog


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Tail wagging the dog – The'?

An item of minor importance dominating a situation.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Tail wagging the dog – The'?

This expression originated in the USA. There isn’t a specific incident that it refers to that can be located there but there are many instances of it in print in US publications from the 1860s onwards, whereas there are none that come from any other country until well into the 20th century.

The earliest citation that I can find is from Tennessee newspaper the Memphis Daily Post, October 1866:

The Democratic Party refused to be swallowed by them, [the Republicans] and the heroic effort to make the tail wag the dog.

This cartoon was published in the Boston Daily Globe, April 1891. It was accompanied by this caption:

President Harrison is at the head of his party, and Mr. Blaine is at the tail, but the recent proceedings at Cincinnati, and other occurrences all over the country, indicate that this is one of the rare cases where the tail will wag the dog, and not the dog the tail.

Dundreary is a character of Tom Taylor’s play Our American Cousin. He was an amiable but dim nobleman, who frequently coined nonsensical riddles and twisted metaphors. These ‘Dundrearyisms’ were similar to Malapropisms and were briefly in vogue amongst US theatre-going circles in the 1850s; for example, ‘a stitch in time never boils’, ‘better late than sorry’.

That Dundreary association leads nicely on to a witticism made by S. J. Perelman, the US humorist. He twisted the phrase after reporting his escape from the attentions of a group of prostitutes – ‘It was a case of the tail dogging the wag’.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.

Trend of the tail wagging the dog in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.