Viacom announced on Monday that Mitt Romney had declined to appear on Nickelodeon’s Kids Pick the President special this year, citing time constraints. President Obama’s camp pounced on Romney’s decision, saying, “Kids demand details ... ‘The dog ate my homework’ just doesn’t cut it when you’re running for president.” When did “my dog ate my homework” become known as schoolchildren’s favorite excuse?
The 1970s. Delinquent schoolchildren and adults have been blaming their shortcomings on their pets for more than a century, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that “my dog ate my homework” came to be considered the No. 1 likely story. One of the first sad sacks who was said to blame his dog for his own ill-preparedness was a priest. In this anecdote, which appeared as early as 1905, a clergyman pulls his clerk aside after a service to ask him whether his sermon seemed long enough. The clerk assures him that it was very nice, “just the right length,” and the priest is relieved. “I am very glad to hear you say that,” he says, “because just before I started to come here my dog got hold of my sermon and ate some of the leaves.” The story was repeated again and again. The first citation of the excuse in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1929 article from the Manchester Guardian, which reads, “It is a long time since I have had the excuse about the dog tearing up the arithmetic homework.” In Bel Kaufman’s best-selling 1965 novel Up the Down Staircase, a list of students’ excuses for not having their homework includes “My dog went on my homework” and “My dog chewed it up.” Even in 1965, however, it was still just another excuse.
“My dog ate my homework” became known as the quintessential far-fetched excuse in the next decade, when the phrase was used over and over. In a 1976 account of the Watergate tapes, E.C. Kennedy describes listening to President Nixon “working on the greatest American excuse since the dog ate my homework.” A 1977 article from Alaska’s Daily News-Miner describes the difficulty students faced in coming up with a new excuse since “ ‘My dog ate my term paper’ is no longer acceptable.”
The excuse was alluded to more and more throughout the 1980s. A 1982 Time magazine column on excuses suggested that “The dog ate my homework is a favorite with schoolchildren,” while a 1987 New York Times column about how students were starting to blame malfunctioning computers and printers quoted one teacher as saying she recently received “a note from a student’s mother saying the dog ate his homework.” Even the president picked up on the trend: When Congress pushed spending approval to the last minute in 1988, Ronald Reagan complained to reporters, “I had hoped that we had marked the end of the ‘dog-ate-my-homework’ era of Congressional budgetry … but it was not to be.” It was all over television, with references to the excuse on shows like The Simpsons and Full House. By 1989, the narrator of Saved by the Bell theme was singing, “And the dog ate all my homework last night.”
The phrase continued to grow more popular. Between 1990 and 2000, the New York Times wrote articles with headlines such as “Beyond ‘Dog Ate My Homework’ ” and “Homework Help Sites (Or, the Dog Ate My U.R.L.),” while The New Yorker described one criminal’s accounts of his wrongdoings as having “a decided my-dog-ate-my-homework quality.” Children’s books tried to capitalize on the trend with titles like A Dinosaur Ate My Homework, Aliens Ate My Homework, Godzilla Ate My Homework, and My Teacher Ate My Homework, daring to use the term to promote reading and education. Such titles have continued into the 2000s, but in recent years the phrase seems to finally be losing steam.
Bonus Explainer: An Obama spokesperson also said, “It’s no surprise Romney decided to play hookey.” Why do we call cutting school “playing hookey”? To play hookey began as an Americanism in the 19th century. The earliest known citation comes from 1848, from John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms, where it was said to mean “to play truant” and noted to be “a term used among schoolboys, chiefly in the State of New York.” Word historians usually suggest that it’s from to hook it meaning to run away, a term as old as the Revolutionary War. However, others have proposed that it might derive from the Dutch expression hoekje spelen, the Dutch expression for “hide and seek”—especially since playing hooky emerged in New York during a time when it had a larger Dutch population.
Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.
Explainer thanks Barry Popik, Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Ben Zimmerof the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com.
Jann Lacoss, Graduate Student Assiciate, TRC and Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures
Just what do you do when you walk into class looking forward to insightful interaction with your students and find that you are the only one who bothered to prepare? Or when they seem to have read the material but have trouble retaining it? Chris Carlsmith facilitated a discussion of such issues during a Fall 1993 BYOB (Bring Your Own Brainstorm) lunch at the TRC. The main questions raised dealt with encouraging students to come to class prepared and what to do if they are not.
Carlsmith, noting that students are more likely to be prepared if they see from the start that individual preparation matters, suggests the following:
- Make routine participation of every class member.
- Use regular written assignments, and vary the questions to add spice.
- Assign discussion leaders to give students part of the responsibility for leading and carrying on discussions.
- Demonstrate your own consistent preparation for class and reward those who are prepared. A participation grade is a good reward.
- If possible, assign group work outside of class, giving each student a unique responsibility.
- Involve students in the choice of topics to be studied, wherever possible.
- Tantalize your students for the next class: read a key quotation, ask them to resolve a puzzle, imagine meeting the author.
- A new idea (see Teaching Concerns, September 1994): Have your students use electronic mail to exchange ideas about the readings or discussion topics before the class meets.
When students are not prepared, you must have a contingency plan. Expressing displeasure with unpreparedness is important, to show that you care about their studies (and your class!). Some potential scenarios for dealing with the occasional unprepared class follow:
- Poll: Try to determine why students are unprepared. Outside commitments were overwhelming? Parents’ Weekend? Rush? Midterms? Difficult assignment? Be sure that they are aware that in order to learn they must do their share of the work.
- Feedback Lecture: Lecture for 10-15 minutes, then ask for students’ reactions: problem-solving, formulating questions, speculating on the topic, and so on. Students can work in small groups or pairs for this exercise.
- Dialectical Notebook: Write a question on the board, and ask students to write brief responses. Each then trades notebooks with another student and responds to the first response. You may repeat this process 2-4 times to allow students to respond actively to each others’ ideas.
- Quotation exercise: Put 3-4 key quotations on the board; ask students to work in pairs to determine the relationship between the quotations. You can also use this activity before an assignment to stimulate interest.
Further notes and handouts from The Dog Ate My Homework are available in the TRC. Videotapes and notes from past workshops are also available. If you have a teaching concern, a request for a workshop or BYOB topic, or just want to discuss teaching, feel free to stop by the TRC in Hotel D, 24 East Range.