What Does Wag the Dog Mean?

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If you aren’t immersed in politics on the daily, through social media, the news, or just casual conversation, you might not be aware that the phrase wag the dog has become pretty poignant political jargon. But, how did it end up in the political lexicon and where did this seemingly innocent-sounding idiom come from?

Below is our rendition of the brief history of the word trends behind wag the dog … but if you can’t get enough political-science intel, our friends at Study.com have an abundant amount of poly-sci courses for you to peruse. You’re welcome.

Where did the expression wag the dog come from?

Wag the dog comes from the longer expression the tail wagging the dog.

The tail wagging the dog is an American idiom that dates back to at least the 1870s. Research by Gary Martin for the UK-based website Phrase Finder first finds the expression in an 1872 local newspaper, The Daily Republican: “Calling to mind Lord Dundreary’s conundrum, the Baltimore American thinks that for the Cincinnati Convention to control the Democratic party would be the tail wagging the dog.” For the tail to wag the dog (then and now) indicates a backwards situation where a small or unimportant entity (the tail) controls a bigger, more important one (the dog).

According to researcher Barry Popik, the variation, don’t let the tax tail wag the investment dog, emerged in the 1960s to caution businesspeople against making decisions solely on the basis of tax concerns.

When did wag the dog become political?

Wag the dog went on to develop its own specialized political meaning. In 1997, a film called Wag the Dog came out, based on a 1993 novel of the same name by Larry Beinhart. The plot revolved around efforts to distract attention from a presidential scandal by fabricating a war.

The story intruded into real politics not long after its release. In 1998, when Bill Clinton’s scandal regarding Monica Lewinsky broke, he was accused of wagging the dog: Three days after admitting he had inappropriate relations with Lewinsky, he ordered missile strikes against two countries, allegedly to divert public attention from his sex scandal.

In April 2017, Donald Trump’s airstrike on Syria was referred to as a wag the dog moment. The perception was that Trump was using the attack to wag the dog, or direct attention away from his low approval ratings, the ongoing investigation about his connections to Russia, and his other conflict of interests.

How do you use wag the dog in a sentence?

Wag the dog can be used as a verb or an adjective. A strategy can be referred to as “a real wag the dog tactic,” or you can say that “The prime minister is wagging the dog with this accusation.” It can also be used as a hashtag to call attention to a person’s use of this strategy.

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