Manger Management 101
Dear Word Detective: I was talking with a coworker the other day when I described the actions of our beloved employer as that of a dog in a manger. He asked me what that meant and I told him that I thought it meant that though the dog has no real use for the manger, he will guard it to prevent others from using it. Hence, though the boss has no real use for an item at the office, he is keeping others from using it, just because he can. So, is my boss a dog in a manger, or what? — Zuzu North.
First of all, I’d like to say at the outset that I love dogs. I say hello to dogs on the street, and often point out especially snazzy dogs to my wife. She, in turn, has theorized that I may actually be a dog myself, a frivolous accusation based solely on my tendency to growl at strangers and one or two car-chasing incidents several years ago. In any case, nothing that follows should be taken too literally. No dog I know would ever act this way.
The phrase “dog in the manger” comes from one of Aesop’s fables, which is short enough to repeat here in full. (A “manger,” incidentally, is the place in a stable where food for oxen and cows is kept, and comes from the Latin word “mangere” — “to eat.”) Aesop wrote:
A dog lay in a manger, and by his growling and snapping prevented the oxen from eating the hay which had been placed for them. “What a selfish dog!” said one of them to his companions, “He cannot eat the hay himself, and yet refuses to allow those to eat who can.”
This fable sums up the behavior of certain humans so well that “dog in the manger” has been used to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “A churlish person who will neither use something himself nor let another use it” since the 16th century.
You’ll have to be the one to decide whether “dog in the manger” accurately describes your boss, but I’d advise against discussing the question any further at your workplace. Bosses have excellent hearing, and they bite.