That dog won't fly - Idiomatic expression

Discussion in 'English Only' started by James Brandon, Jun 28, 2011.

  1. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    I have come across the expression "That dog won't fly" (and you also find "This dog won't fly") in conversation and in the press. I have done a search on Google and the set expression (both versions) throws up 8 entries for each, which is remarkably little.

    I checked this website where odd metaphors are discussed, but it is not particularly illuminating on the expression itself.

    You just can't mangle a metaphor by accident. That dog won't fly.

    The expression refers to a scheme, or idea, or project, or business proposal (etc.) that has been put forward and is deemed a non-starter, i.e. something that is doomed and will inevitably fail. It means, as I understand, in effect: Your idea is not going to work. Give up.

    I do not think the meaning of the set phrase can be inferred from the words, so it qualifies as an idiom or idiomatic expression: dogs are not known to fly.

    I am a bit puzzled by the expression and wonder what its origin is. Any link to the set phrase: And pigs will fly - used to comment on something someone says that is blatantly totally unrealistic? (E.g.: So, you're saying you will be earning £150,000 by the end of the year! And pigs will fly.)

    Insight welcome.
  2. Gwan Senior Member

    Indre et Loire, France
    New Zealand, English
    I've heard 'that dog won't hunt' which is apparently a Southern US expression with much the same meaning. I've never heard the 'fly' version of it though; perhaps it's a mix of that and 'pigs will fly' as you suggest? EDIT: PS As a sidenote, I would always say 'when pigs fly', not 'and pigs will fly'.
    Last edited: Jun 28, 2011
  3. EnglishABC Senior Member

    NZ English
    Hmmm...That don't fly with me.
  4. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Two New Zealanders on this site - at the same time. I am amazed. :)

    I would like to hear from other native speakers. The expression looks American to me, from the sources quoted.

    I have heard it recently, and the research done confirms it does exist.
  5. sound shift

    sound shift Senior Member

    Derby (central England)
    English - England
    I've never heard the expression "That dog won't fly" before. I suspect it is a relative of "That idea won't fly" (meaning "It's a non-starter"), which I've heard a few times and which I believe is AE in origin and not yet "naturalized" in BE (at all events, I don't use it).
  6. Copyright

    Copyright Senior Member

    American English
    Did you find this definition on some other site? Because your linked page doesn't provide a definition for "That dog won't fly" -- instead, it is simply offered as an example of a mangled metaphor.
  7. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    One website quoting it (American) goes back to 2006:

    That dog won't fly ... er, hunt ...The picture was faked, and it was pretty easy to show how.

    Don't worry, Bush has made so many legit flubs that we won't miss that fake!

    Here is a more recent mention:

    NATO’s involvement is also highly illegal as there was no breech of security to it’s members… that dog won’t fly as an excuse to commit US forces as a member of NATO.

    It seems to be used by American-English speakers, and mostly in blogs of a political nature. But I have not checked every occurrence.

    I am not saying it is common, but it certainly exists. The entries I have found (above) seem to have been penned by mainstream commentators/politicians, not by illiterate morons who would be inventing phrases as they go along... (Although I suppose this is relative, and some Americans will consider that the Tea Party organisers are...)


    I have not found the definition I suggest anywhere: it is my own guess from the context. Precisely, I would like confirmation that: (a) The expression's origin is what it is (I have no idea where it comes from); (b) The meaning is what I have guessed.

    It could indeed be a combination of "That idea won't fly" and "a dog" being a bad idea/useless plan/etc.
    Last edited: Jun 28, 2011
  8. pob14 Senior Member

    Central Illinois
    American English
    Without getting into the mental abilities of Tea Partiers . . . .

    I think it pretty clearly was originally a mashup of "That dog won't hunt" (or, as I have heard it, "don't" hunt), and "That won't fly." Both phrases have the same meaning. It was intended as a joke, I would think, and it seems to have gained some traction on its own. Kind of like "it's not rocket surgery" (rocket science plus brain surgery), which I hear more and more often.
  9. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Pob, this sounds like a fair assumption. I have indeed found many references on line to "That dog don't hunt" or "That dog won't hunt", and various meanings put forward - the more frequent one being "That idea won't fly".

    I was not famililar with the expression, "That dog won't hunt".

    PS For learners of English: grammatically, of course, it should be, "That dog doesn't hunt".
  10. Myridon

    Myridon Senior Member

    English - US
    In this particular instance, I believe the author is cluing us in that he is about to mangle a metaphor on purpose. "That dog won't hunt" + "That doesn't fly (with me)" = "That dog won't fly".
    With dogs, flying is not a matter of will or won't, but can't.
  11. Copyright

    Copyright Senior Member

    American English
    I don't know that it's a useful chore for the forum to try to codify the etymology and definition of a phrase that exists in only eight places on the Internet. I would suggest that you make of it what you will.
  12. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK

    Fair point. But other people using the expression seem to consider that it is an accepted idiomatic expression, although of course it will be used ironically, if you see what I mean.

    Basically, I get the impression it is a new idiomatic expression, combining 2 earlier ones, and used ironically - irony in relation to the situation described, and perhaps also, for some, irony in relation to the mixed-metaphor nature of the said expression.

    It will be interesting to see whether it becomes mainstream in the coming months or not - in other words, people start using it just as if it were any established idiomatic expression.

    PS We cannot say the expression exists only in 8 places on the internet: we can say we have found 8 X 2 references to it on Google, which only proves that Google does not list more than 16 occurrences. I am interested in the meaning. The expression exists. It is used. The evidence is there.
  13. Man_from_India Senior Member

    Indian English
    Can you please post the meaning of this phrase?
  14. Myridon

    Myridon Senior Member

    English - US
    It is a humorous combination of the phrases we have already said. It means whatever the 8 people who typed it were thinking about at the time - quite possibly they weren't thinking the same thing about it.

    Farble bleeple bleeble bropie. In a few minutes, Google may find that expression (or it may choose to ignore it) and it will also "exist". ;) It means "If you want to chase windmills, it's fine by me."
    Last edited: Jun 28, 2011
  15. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    What I have explained is that I have also heard this expression used and spotted it in a few newspapers recently.

    As for the meaning, this is precisely what I was wondering and wanted confirmed, obvious as it may have been.

    When I started the Thread, I did not know people would react the way they have, i.e. say that they do not know the expression, have not heard it, etc. I thought it was perhaps well known, and I was the one who did not know it existed. I thought perhaps it was used a lot in the USA. If I had known what to expect, I would have known the answer already: I would not have started the Thread in question.

    The fact there were very few references on Google puzzled me, since I have come across the sentence a few times recently, as I have said. Google searches are one element to assess the frequency of use or existence of a particular phrase or word: it cannot be the only and ultimate criterion. And, in any case, occurrences of the phrase in various contexts are documented on Google.

    Unless we consider that the 8 to 16 people who used the phrase made it up or know each other, they picked up the idiom out of a linguistic context where it was used, we may assume: meaning would not usually be completely arbitrary, as a result.
  16. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Google counts - chased to the last reference:
    That ??? won't fly
    dog - 8
    cow - 11
    cat - 0
    horse - 4
    bull - 9
    mouse - 0
    rat - 0
    pig - 93
    goat - 0
    turkey - 35
    ostrich - 2
    fish - 10
    elephant - 5
    canary - 0
    pigeon - 27
    swallow - 1
    giraffe - 1
    buffalo - 0
    dinosaur - 0
    gerbil - 0
    <Oops, that's three 0's in a row. I'm losing my touch. >
    donkey - 2 <phew>
    butter - 3
    eagle - 9

    I suppose that's enough to show that there is no fixed animal in this idiom.

    The idiom is "that <creature, preferably implausible> won't fly".
  17. Nunty

    Nunty Modified

    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)
    I'm familiar with "that dog won't fight" from Dorothy L. Sayers' books. I wonder if this could be some sort of unintentional variation based on the similar "fie" sounds.
  18. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    I can see that some people have a lot of time on their hands, and love statistics: that's nice.

    Having said this, "pig" does feature as the preferred animal in the set expression already referred to in this Thread. Reductio ad absurdum would lead to the conclusion that any animal can be featured in any expression, in any order. E.g.: To put the cart before the mice, or, As strong as a stick insect. (Come to think of it, this one could be useful to describe certain people.)

    From the entries found on Google, "That dog won't hunt" is well established, and so is, "That turkey won't fly", which I did not know. It could be that, "That dog won't fly" is a combination of the dog refusing (or being unable) to hunt, and the turkey being grounded. As often with expressions of this nature, an extra twist is added by the speaker since, as we know, indeed, dogs do not fly, as a rule. (Except when transported by plane from A to B, I suppose.) On the contrary, turkeys could be expected to fly, although I am not 100pc sure, in fact, that they do fly.
  19. Gwan Senior Member

    Indre et Loire, France
    New Zealand, English
    Without meaning to sound snarky (although you did a bit there), I'm a bit mystified at this point at what you want out of this thread? You're happy to cite your own references (taken from Google) that point to the phrase's existence (even though of the 8 - I'm not sure what your "8 times 2" means - one is for this thread, another clearly presents it as an unusual variant of 'that dog won't hunt' and a third gives it as an example of a mangled metaphor) but reject anyone else's googling as essentially pointless. It seems pretty clear at this point that it's just a minor variation on a theme.
  20. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    It took about ten minutes in total. I don't understand why you find it appropriate to make such comments about those who respond to your questions. It might, perhaps, have been a good idea for you to look at the examples before posting the question.

    The point I was trying to make is that almost anything can be placed in the <creature> location. The essential element of the expression is that the <whatever it is> is unlikely to be a success.

    The choice of <creature> is a secondary matter, but it allows the speaker to make two points in one expression.
    This thing is a <creature>.
    This thing is going to fail.

    Pigs feature a lot for obvious reasons. It looks as if other creatures are more likely to be used if they have some generally-negative connotations.
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2011
  21. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Where is the problem, I am not sure to understand.

    I think I have explained in great detail why I started this Thread, and it boils down to the fact I have come across the expression and wanted to check it was known (or not), and what its exact meaning might be.

    It is obvious it exists to me, even though it may not be commonly used and may be a variation on other expressions. If I had found no trace of it on Google, I would have concluded it probably did not exist. The evidence is slim, but it is there.

    However, it appears to be marginal, I will grant you that.

    Other than that, I have nothing to add and cannot see what there is that I would need to justify or explain.

    When you raise a language-related issue, of course you do not know all the ins and outs: if you did, you wouldn't be raising the issue, would you?

    I have not invented the phrase. It may be marginal. But it exists out there. And the more you discuss it, the more currency you give to the said expression, by the way. And this Thread now appears top when you do a Google search with "That dog won't fly". Not that this was my aim or motive.
  22. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    I think that the problem is that "won't fly" is itself a metaphor, so it will be attached to almost anything if given enough of a sample size - and thanks to Google, we have the whole internet as a sample. Also, "That won't fly" is such a commonly-used phrase for denying something's feasibility, and that probably increases the odds of people using it for other purposes.

    It's clear that "That dog won't fly" is a joke, particularly in the case of the "You can't just mangle a metaphor by accident." It is indeed a mixed metaphor or a catachresis. If people are saying it, it's ironically - particularly because "That dog won't hunt" is itself a rather obscure cliché and one that most speakers wouldn't think to use in the first place. (For proof of that, I'd look at the use of "That dog won't hunt" as a punchline on the television comedy "Futurama": So, not only is it a mixed metaphor, but it's a rather obscure metaphor to mix, which makes me think that it shouldn't be the product of several bizarre accidents. But then again, the Google sample size is quite large...

    I think the original poster might have more clearly stated the main question - which is, I believe, whether or not all the people who are jokingly saying "That dog won't fly" are saying that because they've all heard it in the same place (for instance, on a television show or in a movie or a viral video of someone amusingly mangling a metaphor). So that, I believe, is what James is looking for. I don't know the answer to that question: is it used in certain sporting circles, or is it popular in Washington, DC? did a politician accidentally let it slip on the campaign trail, or was it a joke from some stand-up comic's act? or, even more bizarrely, was it the standard example given of mixed metaphors in the 1960's? I think that's the question here.

    But is there an answer to it?
  23. clevermizo Senior Member

    San Diego, CA
    English (USA), Spanish
    As a native speaker of AE, for what it's worth, I've never heard "That dog won't fly" in my life, but if I did hear it I'd understand it as a variation on "that <anything> won't fly" as has been thoroughly discussed in this thread, something won't be successful.

    I'd say it's not more common than any idiosyncratic or otherwise creative variation on the "won't fly" idiom and I agree with Panjandrum's analysis.
  24. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Overall, I agree with Lucas: he has said what I meant to say (or query), perhaps better than I did, but that is, beyond the obvious (is the phrase recognised, who uses it, what does it mean?), what is of interest - if anything - here.

    At this point, and from what people have said, I am happy to say it certainly is not a widely used or a fully established/recognised expression; it most probably is a variation on a range of set idiomatic expressions, some old-fashioned and rarely used nowadays (That dog won't hunt), some ironic and not that common (That turkey won't fly), and the formulaic: That <animal> won't fly.

    The sample I have found on Google is, admittedly, small, but it is interesting, because the phrase does appear to be used deliberately by those users, and in a way that indicates that they seem to be reproducing what they feel to be a set phrase - not something they are inventing there and then. At any rate, this is my take on it.

    So, at this stage, I think it is fair to say it is a mixed metaphor that is fringe and not widely used - and some users of this site may conclude that, as a result, it is of little (or no) interest, and fair enough.

    When people start using a mixed metaphor of this nature in ironic mode (aren't I funny and hadn't you heard this one before?), what happens is that the phrase, as it becomes used more and more (which may not happen with this one), becomes established in its own right. And you have a new idiom.

    Other than that, I started the Thread because I was not sure what type of idiomatic expression it was, and I was simply curious. More particularly, I assumed - wrongly, as I can see now - that it might be common in the US.

    When you don't know about something, you don't know whether you don't know because you are the only one not to know and all the others around you do know, or you don't know because no one knows - and there might be nothing to know. You can only know which it is by double-checking and asking around. I think you will find references to this process and problem in Plato and, more recently, in Donald Rumsfeld's quotes. :D I would not call my approach unusual or bizarre; I would describe it as logical and rather normal.

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