Can The Dog Still Eat Your Homework?

It may be the best known bad excuse for being unprepared: "The Dog Ate My Homework." But where does the phrase come from and how has it changed over the years? Weekend Edition host Scott Simon talks with Forrest Wickman, a reporter with Slate Magazine, who has the answers.

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(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RUSTLING)

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I - I...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG GROWLING)

SIMON: I don't know what to say. The dog ate my script.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

SIMON: You know that old excuse that makes people groan, palpably ridiculous, right? But was it always so? This week Forrest Wickman of Slate magazine traced the origin of that phrase school kids have used for decades to explain why they don't have their homework and adults have cited as what amounts to an exemplar of absurdity.

Forrest Wickman joins us from Slate in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

FORREST WICKMAN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So, near as you can tell, who was the first person to say something like, the dog ate my homework?

WICKMAN: It's hard to point to anyone in particular. One can make the argument that one of the first examples is this guy Saint Tyron(ph) who around the fifth century had this fox that he found and he started taking the fox around. And at some point the fox ate his psalms.

SIMON: So the fox ate my scripture?

WICKMAN: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: OK. So that's the 5th century. We've got some time to account for. Yes. And?

WICKMAN: It really starts picking up in the 20th century. One of the earliest really popular stories that's told often around 1905, 1910 - this priest who finishes his sermon and then he pulls his clerk aside and he asks his clerk: What did you think of the sermon? He's a little worried. And the clerk says: Oh, I think it was a fine sermon. And the priest says: Oh, I'm so glad because the dog just ate the last several pages of my sermon.

SIMON: What other kind of permutations were you able to find over the years?

WICKMAN: Yeah, so even through the '60s people - it's still juts one of many excuses. People might say my dog ate my homework. My dog went on my homework is one excuse that's used in a popular book from 1965 that's called "Up the Down Staircase."

SIMON: This is Bel Kaufman's novel about a New York City high school. Right. Yeah.

WICKMAN: Right. And it was turned into a movie in 1967. And then in the 1970s, it finally really becomes a think, a stock excuse that was well known as perhaps the most popular excuse.

SIMON: Is it an excuse that's running out of steam in the digital age when it might make more logical sense to say the dog drooled on my hard drive?

WICKMAN: Right. There has been some speculation about this. Google has these things called engrams, which track the appearance of a phrase over time. And pretty much any permutation of my dog ate my homework, all of those phrases, have been declining over the last decade or so.

SIMON: Anything to replace it?

WICKMAN: I don't know. In the '90s, there were all these children's books that started to really play with the phrase once it was so well known. So, "Godzilla Ate My Homework," "A Dinosaur Ate My Homework," "Aliens Ate My Homework," "My Teacher Ate My Homework." But I don't see any of those taking over anytime soon.

SIMON: I like the aliens ate my homework. I mean, perhaps that's their way of learning about our world.

WICKMAN: That could be how it works.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Forrest Wickman of Slate magazine. Thanks so much for being with us.

WICKMAN: Thanks very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is NPR News,

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