dog in the manger


The Dog in the Manger

The Dog in the Manger, from The Fables of Æsop selected, told anew and their history traced (1894), by Joseph Jacobs – illustrated by Richard Heighway






A person who prevents others from having or using things even though he or she does not need them





Contrary to what has often been said, the phrase dog in the manger is not derived from a moral animal fable by the Greek storyteller Aesop (6th century BC) — this particular tale does not appear in the early collections of the fabulist. The phrase goes back to a tradition first recorded in several 2d-century AD works in the Greek language, which might have in turn their source in an earlier proverb. The story was expanded in Renaissance fable collections and only then became part of the Aesop corpus.

The satirist Lucian of Samosata (circa 125-80) provides two of the earliest attestations (translation: A. M. Harmon – 1915):

- from The Ignorant Book Collector:

You might, to be sure, lend your books to someone else who wants them, but you cannot use them yourself. But you never lent a book to anyone; you act like the dog in the manger, who neither eats the grain herself nor lets the horse eat it, who can.

- from Timon, or the Misanthrope:

You used to say that they acted absurdly in that they loved you to excess, yet did not dare to enjoy you when they might, and instead of giving free rein to their passion when it lay in their power to do so, they kept watch and ward, looking fixedly at the seal and the bolt; for they thought it enjoyment enough, not that they were able to enjoy you themselves, but that they were shutting everyone else from a share in the enjoyment, like the dog in the manger that neither ate the barley herself nor permitted the hungry horse to eat it.

In the same century, the phrase also appeared in the apocryphal gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said, ‘Woe to those Pharisees, for they are like a dog sleeping in the manger of some cattle, for it neither eats nor allows the cattle to feed’.

The closest parallel to this biblical verse is the gospel of Matthew, 23:13 (King James Version):

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.


The proverb was recorded later in the Suda (Stronghold), a 10th-century Byzantine Greek historical encyclopaedia of the ancient Mediterranean world, covering the whole of Greek and Roman antiquity and also including Biblical and Christian material:

– A dog at the manger: a proverb in reference to those neither using something nor allowing others to do so.
– The bitch in the manger: a proverbial phrase in reference to those neither using something themselves nor allowing others to do so; inasmuch as she does not eat the barley and prevents the horse from doing so.

The Suda was quoted by the Dutch humanist and scholar Desiderius Erasmus (circa 1469-1536) in Adagiorum chiliades (Thousands of proverbs – 1551 edition). This celebrated book in Latin and its various translations played a role in spreading the proverbial metaphor all over Europe:

Canis in praesepi (Dog in the manger)

The dog in the manger, is said of those who neither enjoy something themselves nor allow other people to get any benefit from it; for instance if a man were to keep valuable manuscripts tightly locked up, which he never opens himself nor allows anyone to read them, just like a dog in the manger that does not eat the barley itself and prevents the horse from eating it. Lucian ‘Against an Ignoramus’ [= ‘The Ignorant Book Collector’]: “But you behave like the dog that lies in the manger, neither eating the barley itself nor making way for the horse that could eat it”. He uses it again in his ‘Timon’. He is cited by Suidas* in his article on the proverb ‘Nothing to do with Dionysus’, but no source is named: “You bring the dog to the manger, and bring forward nothing to do with Dionysus”, that is, you adduce something quite off the point, and of what was relevant to the point at issue you adduce nothing [read footnote]. Athenaeus in book 6 reports something similar of a tribe of Galatians called the Cordistae: they abominate gold and do not import it into their own country, but none the less do not cease to seize gold from other people. This tribe is said to the remnant of the Gauls who ravaged the oracle at Delphi under their leader Brennus, who were pursued and dealt with mercilessly by their leader Bathanatus. Hence their hatred of gold, for the sake of which they have suffered so much; and yet they grudge it to anyone else.

(* It was believed that the Suda had been written by a man called Suidas.)

The earliest known occurrence of the metaphor in English is in Confessio Amantis (around 1393) by John Gower:

Although a hound is not inclined
To eat straw, still he will the ass
Which comes into the barn harass,
So that it may no food consume.
original text:
Thogh it be noght the houndes kinde
To ete chaf, yit wol he werne
An Oxe which comth to the berne,
Therof to taken eny fode.

It was only in the 15th century that the proverbial expression was expanded into a narrative and attributed to Aesop. An anonymous Latin manuscript, Fabulae extravagantes, contains the following (translation: Ben Edwin Perry):

The Dog in the Manger

A dog without conscience lay in a manger full of hay. When the cattle came to eat of the hay he would not let them, but showed his teeth in ugly mood. The oxen protested: “It is not right for you to begrudge us the satisfaction of indulging our natural appetite when you yourself have no such appetite. It is not your nature to eat hay, and yet you prevent us from eating it.” And so it was when this dog had a bone in his mouth; he couldn’t gnaw it any more himself, but he wouldn’t let another dog gnaw it.

Heinrich Steinhöwel (1412-82) included it in Latin, together with his own German translation, in his compilation of fables attributed to Aesop, Buch und Leben des Fabeldichters Esopi (1475-77). In 1480, Julien Macho translated Steinhöwel’s fable into French in L’Ésope, and William Caxton in turn translated Macho’s rendition into English in The Booke of the subtyl historyes and fables of Esope (1484):

The xi fable is of the enuyous dogge

None ought not to haue enuye of the good of other/ As it iappiereth by this fable/ Of a dogge whiche was enuyous/ and that somtyme was within a stable of oxen/ the whiche was ful of heye/ This dogge kept the oxen that they shold not entre in to theyr stable/ and that they shold not ete of the sayd hey/ And thenne the oxen sayd to hym/ Thow arte wel peruers and euylle to haue enuye of the good/ the whiche is to vs nedefull and prouffitable/ And thow hast of hit nought to doo/ for thy kynde is not to ete no hey/ And thus he dyd of a grete bone/ the whiche he held at his mouthe/ and wold not leue hit by cause and for enuye of another dogge/ whiche was therby/ And therfore kepe the wel fro the company or felauship of an enuyous body/ For to haue to doo with hym hit is moche peryllous and dyffycyle/ As to vs is wel shewen by Lucyfer.





- Behold the Proverbs of a People: Proverbial Wisdom in Culture, Literature, and Politics (University Press of Mississippi – 2014), by Wolfgang Mieder

- Suda On Line: Bysantine Lexicography




Note: Erasmus refers to the following saying in the Suda – it is unclear whether it is linked with the phrase dog in the manger or it is a separate phrase:

Nothing to do with Dionysus:
Certain people exclaimed this after Epigenes of Sicyon had composed a tragedy in honour of Dionysus; hence the saying. But the following is better. Formerly, when writing in honour of Dionysus they used to compete with these compositions, which also used to be called satyrika. But later on, having progressed to writing tragedies, they turned gradually to myths and historical subjects, no longer with Dionysus in mind. Hence they also exclaimed this. And Chamaileon in ‘On Thespis’ relates similar things. Theaitetos, however, in ‘On Sayings’ says that the painter Parrhasius when competing at Corinth painted the most beautiful Dionysus. Those who viewed both the works of his competitors, which he left far behind, and the Dionysus of Parrhasius exclaimed: “What have they to do with Dionysus?”. It is an adage applied to those who speak foolishly, not saying what is appropriate in the circumstances.
And elsewhere: “he said Koroibos was a clever Odysseus, despite providing no instance to substantiate this. You are leading the dog to the manger and to Dionysus you bring nothing”.

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