screw the pooch

The phrase screw the pooch, meaning to mess up, commit a grievous error, has its first known appearance in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff:

They were the heroes of Kennedy’s political comeback, the updated new frontier whose symbol was a voyage to the moon. To announce that the second one, Gus Grissom, had prayed to the Lord: “Please, dear God, don’t let me fuck up"—but his prayer had not been answered, and the Lord let him screw the pooch—well, this was an interpretation of that event that was to be avoided at all costs.

Wolfe’s book is an account of the test pilots and astronauts in the 1950s and early 1960s, and while he puts the phrase in their mouths there are no documented uses of screw the pooch prior to the book’s publication. (The book is based in part on a 4-part series “The Astronauts” by Wolfe that appeared in Rolling Stone in 1973. I have not yet examined those articles to see if the phrase appears in them.)

Screw the pooch, however, is a euphemism for an older phrase. Fuck the dog, meaning to loaf, to gold brick, to goof off, dates to World War I in euphemistic form. From Mark Sullivan’s 1918 Our Times, Vol. V:

F.T.D.: Feeding the dog. The supposed occupation of a soldier who is killing time.

A decade or so later, this less euphemistic, but still expurgated, version is seen in print. From Jack Conroy’s 1935 A World To Win:

One of the first things you gotta learn when you’re f—n’ the dog...is t’ look like you’re workin’ hard enough t’ make yer butt blossom like a rose. Rattle templets, beat with a hammer on a beam, but do somethin’. If the boss ketches you f—n’ the dog while you’re helpin’ me, he’ll eat me up blood raw.

(Source: Sheidlower’s The F Word)

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