Man Bites Dog Humour

‘Man Bites Dog’ describes inversion humour. I’ve also seen ‘hat on a dog’ describing the same category of joke, in which the audience laughs because the usual way of things is back to front.


Journalists also use ‘Man Bites Dog’ to describe stories that are popular because they intrigue via (often humorous) inversion. This is partly why news stories about ‘the first female rugby coach’ or ‘8-year-old codes his own traffic app’ are newsworthy in the first place; these stories are only news because a certain element is unexpected.

For some reason we commonly think of dogs when describing this category of joke. In Harald Skogsberg’s illustration below, a hare chases a dog through the woods. This is comical because for one reason only: in the real world, hounds chase hares instead. The Man Bites Dog gag is a single-layer joke.

Harald Skogsberg hare chases hound

In 2002 there was a news story in which a man literally bit a dog. Because the ‘Man Bites Dog’ trope already existed, this was now a double-layer joke.


Although the hound and hare illustration above includes an audience of adults, children’s picture books are full of man bites dog gags, because preschoolers are yet to understand multi-layered humour such as satire, but will laugh their heads off if they see Dad put on Mum’s hat, for example. In this post I take a close look at the sorts of jokes enjoyed by child audiences at what ages, based on a taxonomy proposed by the co-founder of The Onion.

In order for Man Bites Dog gags to work, the audience needs an internalised schema of ‘expected normality’, and the comedian needs to make use of established norms in order to invert it. By making use of the established norm, the comedian further cements the established norm.

The illustration below is also by Harald Skogsberg, who lived through the 20th century. While a modern audience may not see the humour, it is partly humorous in its intent. A wife scolds a man, who is dressed as a housewife, and is clearly doing the wife expected of a housewife.

There is no better way to cement ideologies than by use of humour. The ideology reinforced within the illustration below: Housework is for wives, not husbands. The image aims to elicit a laugh, but also does the social work of reinforcing the idea that if husbands do their share of housework, they will appear ridiculous to onlookers and lose their status.

This is why Man Bites Dog gags can be so problematic. You might think that contemporary bestselling children’s books are free of the sort of mid-20th century humour depicted in the house husband image above. Unfortunately it hasn’t disappeared.

One of the most quietly problematic examples of gender inversion can be seen in The Day The Crayons Quiet by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers. If it seems subtle, that’s only because we’re not looking back on our current era with the benefit of enlightened hindsight. Likewise, there are many, many children’s stories in which a man dresses as a woman, reinforcing the gender binary and all the rules around what proper masculinity and femininity should look like. (tl;dr If boys want to wear dresses, they will look ridiculous.)

The huge numbers of people buying The Day The Crayons Quit indicate that most adults are simply not seeing any problems with that book. I’m sure most mid-20th century audiences enjoying the humorous illustrations of Harald Skogsberg weren’t fully cognisant of his ideologies, either.

To tell 20th century audiences that Skogsberg was problematically sexist would’ve been like explaining water to a fish. And to tell


Subversion in storytelling: How is it done?

Jack Sprat

On its surface, Jack Sprat is a nursery rhyme about a married couple with complementary tastes in food. In the 1500s, Jack Sprat was the nick name given to small men. Today you can buy sprats in cans from the supermarket. They taste like salty sardines. ‘Sprat’ describes a variety of small forage fish. The defining features of a sprats: highly active, small and — ironically — oily. Jack Sprat may eat no fat, but his namesake is full of it.

This is in line with modern dietary science, at odds with the rhyme as depicted by almost every single illustrator of Jack Sprat ever — that eating fat makes us fat. It is now thought that a high carbohydrate diet more efficiently lays down adipose tissue.

One exception to the fat wife and skinny Jack is the illustration by Kate Greenaway, in which the couple’s preferences for macronutrients is not reflected in their body mass index. This is because they’re children playing the parts.

Jack Sprat and his wife by Kate Greenaway, British illustrator (1846 – 1901).

Here again we have no Jack, no wife, simply two children imagining the rhyme as they prepare to eat.

Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat from “Favorite Nursery Rhymes”, the third of 3 over-sized books (with 9.5 x 13 inch pages) by Merrill Publishing Co., 1953-1958 in Chicago, Illinois


Importantly the lines began as a proverb and became known as a rhyme after its inclusion in Mother Goose collections published for children. The proverb went like this:

Jack will eat not fat, and Jull doth love no leane,
Yet betwixt them both they lick the dishes cleane

There are many theories about the meaning of this rhyme and no one knows for sure:

  • Jack Sprat could refer to King Charles I, this story being about a conflict between the King and the Parliament during his reign.  King Charles I was left financially “lean” when parliament denied him taxation. But with his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, Charles was free to “lick the platter clean” after he dissolved parliament.
  • Jack Sprat could also be related to the Robin Hood Legend about King John and his brother Richard I (Richard The Lionheart).
  • The proverb might be about Prince John and his marriage with Joan, which was ultimately called off.


A fuller version of the rhyme includes a cat.

Jack Sprat could eat no fat.
His wife could eat no lean.
And so between them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean
Jack ate all the lean,
Joan ate all the fat.
The bone they picked it clean,
Then gave it to the cat

Below is the most wretched picture book cat I’ve ever seen. Historically, cats were kept as ratters and ate scraps, but in this particular household, there are clearly no scraps. The cat’s tail seems to be suffering from the mange.

Illustration by Frederick Richardson, American, 1862 – 1937.

On brand as ever, Arthur Rackham’s illustration is creepy and ominous. The cat does not exist. Perhaps it has died of starvation. Shadows cast ominous doubles against the wall. Light comes from an off-the-page source, evoking the mood of art noir.

Jack Sprat and His Wife by Arthur Rackham
Jack Sprat and His Wife by Arthur Rackham

The illustration below features the brighter colours and comic tone required for inclusion in Nursery Rhymes for young children. There is no cat here, but there is a parrot in a very small cage, which is probably dropping dander and poop into those receptacles below. Many classic paintings from this era feature a bird in a cage inside the house, and I’m yet to learn whether this is a purely symbolic feature of narrative art, or whether people really did keep birds hanging in their kitchens like this.

“Jack Sprat and his wife”, early 1900s, from The Nursery Rhyme Book
Jack Sprat illustrated by L. Leslie Brooke, in which the characters are clearly royalty.


Turns out Jack has a pig, as well. I guess there were scraps and they went into the pig’s swill, because the pig seems to be doing just dandy. Or perhaps ‘Little Jack Sprat’ is a prequel to the more famous poem, showing Jack Sprat as a child (rather than as a small-build man). This poem seems to have originated in the 1800s. Someone clearly liked the name. It does have a ring to it, appealing like Dwight Schrute.

Is the Jack Sprat of the later poem even the same person? Sometimes the Sprat of this later poem is spelled with a double ‘t’, for example in The Little Mother Goose.

Jack Sprat had a pig, who was not very little,
Nor yet very big;
He was not very lean, he was not very fat;
He’ll do well for a grunt,
Says little Jack Sprat.

from The Big Book of Nursery Rhymes, published 1903.

Whoever created the illustration below decided to go with an adult Jack who with his voracious wife is about to eat the pig, served whole on a platter. Even more confronting, this is a piglet, not a pig.

Magic Words and Spells

The Magic Circle 1886 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917

In children’s fantasy, enchanted realism and magical realism, there is often an arc word (leitwort) which enters popular lexicon, or sticks in the mind long after the reader leaves the story. These magic words sometimes become a part of the child’s own imaginative play, an improvised version of early childhood fan fiction.

Where Do Magic Words Come From?

Imagine a baby on the verge of learning to speak. For all of her life she has been inarticulate — she wants something, but all she can do is cry or say “Uh, uh, uh!” Then, somehow, the purpose of speech is revealed to her, and after what must be a tremendous struggle, the power of speech. Though we all once experienced it, it is hard now to picture the immense thrill of power we must have felt the first time we cried “Mommy!” or “Cookie!” and saw what we desired appear. From this experience, surely, comes the power of magic words and spells in fairytales.

Small children like simple, repetitive rhymes and games, just as they like repetitive or cumulative folktales such as The Gingerbread Man. As they grow older and more competent linguistically they become impatient with such tales; they learn that the magic spell doesn’t always work and that words don’t always mean what they seem to mean.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature
1920s Magic poster 'Brush The Mystic The Hindu Basket'
1920s Magic poster ‘Brush The Mystic The Hindu Basket’

Examples of Magic Words and Spells

  • Nickety Nacketty Noo Noo Noo by Joy Cowley, in which the spell is in the title
  • Harry Potter is full of them: Riddikulus, Obliviat, Alohomora etc.
  • The Magic Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton features trees which whisper ‘wisha wisha’, which as a child reader sent a tingle down my spine. While this onomatopoeia doesn’t directly function as a magic word, it signals that the children have entered an enchanted realm.
AbracadabraOriginates in the late 17th century (as a mystical word engraved and used as a charm to ward off illness). The word comes from Latin and was first recorded in a 2nd-century poem by Q. Serenus Sammonicus.
Presto!From Italian ‘quick, quickly’, from late Latin praestus ‘ready’. In modern English, it’s usually ‘Hey, presto!” This is because magicians started using ‘Hey presto!’ in the late 18th century. English speakers first borrowed presto from Italian as a musical term.
ShazamThis is relatively new, dating only from the 1940s, and a guy called Gomer Pyle, who popularised the Marvel Comics word.
Ta-da!This is from the art deco era, and is simply mimetic, meaning it’s the sound we imagine is made when a magician makes a flourish and presents something magical to the audience.
Voila!French (voilà) from the 1700s, basically means ‘Look!’

What makes a good magic word?

For the answer to this, I turn to the work of scholars who have studied nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes have a proven track record for memorability and infiltration into the real lives of children (and caregivers).

In her paper “From nursery rhymes to childlore: orality and ideology“, Catalina Millán Scheiding writes about the enduring popularity of nursery rhymes under the following headings:

  1. Rhythm rhythm is an especially important aspect of the prosody of nursery rhyme (along with  intonation, stress and tempo of speech). Then there’s isochrony (e.g. whether a language is stress-timed or syllable timed). Children’s rhymes tend to have a ‘binary structure’ e.g. quatrains, or four-beat lines (Baa Baa Black Sheep). Some have proposed that this is because they mimic heartbeats, which we remember from our time in the womb. Nursery rhymes often offer a sense of closure in their rhythm. This is known as a ‘closed circular structure’. Scheiding offers Baa Baa Black Sheep as an example of this. John Prine’s Prine’s rhythmic delivery of “Illegal Smile” is likewise phrased ‘like a children’s sing-along, emphasizing the final two syllables of each line: “I chased a rainbow down a one-way street — dead end/And all my friends turned out to be insurance — sales men.”’
  2. Musicality refers to metrical pattern and how rhythm is marked. English is an example of a ‘stress timed language’, which means native English speakers in most dialects around the world leave the same length of time between stressed syllables. (Māori background speakers in New Zealand often speak native English without the stress timing, borrowing Māori syllable timing unrelated of whether they also speak Te Reo Māori.) ‘Musicality’ of an utterance will partly depend on who is uttering it.
  3. Repetition Binary structures lend themselves to repetition. Rhyme is another form of repetition and the following observation is especially interesting:

Rhymes are generally rooted in the sensory world and make reference to people, objects, and actions, but not ideas, although ideas can and are inferred and assumed from the short actions found in the rhymes. This situational nature makes rhymes more recognizable, as the objects and actions they depict are related to the culture they belong to, and can be found in daily actions. A rhyme could then be recalled and ‘activated’ when in contact with any of these domestic activities which it mentions.

Debbie Pullinger, From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Children’s Poetry
  1. Formulaicity babies initially learn language as ‘units’ and later as linked strings of words, initially unaware of divisions. Much adult language is also formulaic, and these shared phrases are an important part of a community’s identity.
  2. Language as Play Memorable phrases are phrases which form the basis of play. Audiences incorporate them into play and build on them, using the original as a model. Where magic words and rhymes accompany movement (e.g. clapping, skipping, jumping) they become more memorable. Memorable phrases are performative (contrasting with descriptive).
Charles Geer 1965 Danger Is The Password
Charles Geer 1965 Danger Is The Password

Magic Words Revisited

  • Nickety nacketty noo noo noo appeals because of its repetition, its musicality and its rhythm.
  • J.K. Rowling’s magical words and spells work a bit differently from the nursery rhymes. They appeal to the older reader’s interest in wordplay and etymology. For instance, “Riddikulus” is an adaptation of “ridiculous” as well as of ridiculum (Latin, “joke”) and ridere (Latin, “to laugh”). The reader doesn’t necessarily know all that in order to appreciate it, but by uttering it in an everyday context, bonds with other Harry Potter superfans.
  • Wisha wisha is beautifully onomatopoeic, and whenever I hear wind blowing through trees, I think they are saying ‘wisha wisha’. This is in line with Pullinger’s theory that the best nursery rhymes (and also the best magic words) are situational, found in daily actions (or natural phenomena).

Header painting: The Magic Circle 1886 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917