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Definition

The definitions I found don't do it justice...

  1. A long rambling joke whose humor derives from its pointlessness.

  2. or
  3. A prolonged joke with a ridiculous or irrelevant punch line.

Usage

The basic concept is to take forever telling a story, using fact and fiction, in a manner so as to make the fiction indistinguishable from the fact. This is not to be mistaken with sci-fi for several reasons:

  • Sci-fi is usually about the future, whereas shaggy dog stories dwell in the not-too-distant past, usually using real people and places, while adding situations that can't easily be disproved.
  • For a good example of a shaggy dog story see Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! Trilogy, which at one point has 2 (of his many) gunmen on the grassy knoll literally running into each other after the kennedy assassination, then going back to report to each owns secret society.
  • Shaggy dog stories are deliberately taken to the ludicrous zone, whereas sci-fi is not, but as with any writing style, there are not always fine lines.
  • For an example of humor and sci-fi mixed see Douglas Adams and his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
  • Many shaggy dog stories seem to be written with someone in mind, like a recent political figure. This is often hard to notice, since many date from around the 1940s to 1950s. It seems that not only are these stories telling a long absurd story, but that they are poking fun at individual people, and their absurd responses.
  • See the example below of the classic shaggy story, and wonder. Did the wit who told it have a specific aristocrat in mind?

Origin

Shaggy dog stories originated around the 1930's and began to be widely circulated by 1942 or 1943. The term first hit print in 1945 in The New York Times Magazine. By 1946 collections were being published under the title Shaggy Dog Stories.

One possible origin given by William and Mary Morris, in The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, involves an advertisement being placed in The Times to announce a competition to find the shaggiest dog in the world. After a vast amount of effort and investigation (described in detail, after the nature of this type of story), the winning dog was presented to the aristocratic instigator of the competition, who said: "I don't think he's so shaggy".

The origin aspect reference I used is http://www.quinion.com/words/qa/qa-sha1.htm at World Wide Words © Michael Quinion, 1996-. All rights reserved. Page created 1 May 1999; last updated 19 June 1999, by Jane Rawoof.

Thanks to ToasterLeavings for reminding me to put the ref.. and for Cooling the first node I've ever written.
Thanks also to the fellow noder and her husband who helped me find that ref. in the first place. Currently wracking my brain to remember who it was. I think it was ailie.