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There's a back-and-forth email correspondence between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky discussing ethics here. In one of the emails Sam says to Noam:

I trust that certain of your acolytes would love to see the master in high dudgeon—believing, as you seem to, that you are in the process of mopping the floor with me—but the truth is that your emotions are getting the better of you. I’d rather you not look like the dog who caught the car.

I've found only one site online that gives a meaning of it:

n. A person who has reached their goal but doesn’t know what to do next.

Notes
This idiom is based on the strange habit that some dogs have of chasing cars that are passing by on a nearby road. What on earth would one of these crazed canines do if it actually caught a car? This idiom is also seen as the dog that caught the truck (1993) and the dog that caught the bus (1994).
Wordspy

However this meaning doesn't make sense to me in the context. Sam is accusing Noam of being belligerent and cantankerous, and I don't see this as Sam telling Noam that he'd hate to see him be "the one who has achieved his goal and now doesn't know what to do."

I also found some user definitions on Yahoo Answers, but the meanings vary. The top answer there is:

the impossible has been accomplished.

The second answer is:

It can be taken two ways .

One.......it means you finally did something, you have tried many times and failed...........

or it can be a euphemism, for.........the Dog is dead.

Because the dog actually CATCHING the car.....usually doesn't end well for the dog.

Achieving the impossible doesn't seem to fit in the Harris-Chomsky discussion.

However, the dog being dead makes a bit more sense, as Sam is telling Noam that his manifest aggressiveness is not making him look good in front of their readers, and so the dog being dead could be figurative for Noam's attacks backfiring on him and making him look bad.

I'm having trouble knowing what is meant by this in the email exchange, and also in general. Stephen Colbert seems to use it in the way Wordspy defined it:

Stephen Colbert likens Trump team to the dog that caught the car
Trump and his team, he continued, are “like a dog who spent his whole life chasing a car — now he has to drive the car.”
Entertainment Weekly article

Does this most generally mean what Wordspy says? Also, is my reading of Sam Harris' use of it to mean "dead dog" right?

  • It is the "dog is dead" (or at least has had some parts involuntarily rearranged) sense. – Dan Bron Oct 30 '18 at 17:16
  • @DanBron Thanks for confirming my suspicion. I notice that its use is not at all uncommon, you can see it in news article headlines and so forth. It's just it lacks definitions in phrase books and stuff like that. I think the most popular use is the "achieved something and not knowing what to do" meaning, but that's kind of a hunch. – Zebrafish Oct 30 '18 at 17:43
  • In my personal experience it’s the more morbid meaning which is commonly used. But it’s not used much, so it probably varies. – Dan Bron Oct 30 '18 at 17:44
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    The Colbert thing is different from the Chomsky thing. Both involve being ridiculous or looking it. – Lambie May 10 at 21:16
  • The dog who caught the car is not the the tail who wags the dog. – Lambie Jun 14 at 18:15
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the dog who caught the car wordspy

n. A person who has reached their goal but doesn’t know what to do next.

My sense is that the dog is not dead ... he has achieved a long desired goal ... now what. Colbert's quote is apropos for a humans: having caught the car (the office), metaphorically they now have to drive it.

Another reference:

▶ the dog has caught the car. The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 2nd Edition

a person (or group of people) who has achieved a goal and is now at a loss for what to do next. AmE

As in:

It will be very difficult for Central Command to calibrate its war plan to everything taking place in the country now. The dog has caught the car. — Retired Major General Don Shepperd, CNN, 11 April 2003

And a third reference: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Weird Word Origins

  • Downvote because I strongly disagree this is the sense employed in that context. OP already has that definition, as well as others, so this answer doesn’t add any facts to the discussion, simply an opinion. An opinion I disagree with. Maybe if you could make a stronger case? – Dan Bron Oct 30 '18 at 20:06
  • @DanBron I added a second reference to support my answer. – lbf Oct 30 '18 at 20:29
  • Thanks for that. But I don’t think additional quotes saying that people use it in this sense supports the argument that that’s the sense being used in this context. Like “ran” has many definitions, but quoting 3 dictionaries’ gloss of “walking, but faster” doesn’t support the argument that that’s the gloss used in “ran for President”. See what I mean? I don’t think this is the meaning employed here, I think it’s the other meaning OP cited in his question. So I think the answer would be improved by a strong case that it’s this one, not the other one, being used in his context. – Dan Bron Oct 30 '18 at 20:32
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    Thanks for the answer. I'm glad you found an extra two definitions. The first link to the Partridge Dictionary is dead. Also, if you don't mind I'll edit the Complete Idiot's Guide to Weird Word Origins link to lead to the actual page where the definition is given. Feel free to roll back the edit. It seems the term is understood in different ways by different people, but at least the formal definitions seem to be consistent. Sam Harris however is using it in another way. – Zebrafish Oct 31 '18 at 2:46
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    The car didn't catch the dog! The more morbid interpretation may be evoked, but the idiom is meant to convey something along the lines of "aha! ... but what now?" The surrounding text in the source implies that Chompsky has failed to counter the primary argument and has instead focused on quibbling over inconsequential minutiae, failing to counter Harris' main points. – sippybear Oct 31 '18 at 3:40
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Maybe some people use it to mean "a goal was attained and now they don't know what to do", but in this context Harris isn't saying that. He's saying that a dubious or worthless goal was attained, regardless of what happens next.

If you race your friend to a chain-link fence and you win, only to find out the fence was electrified, you're the dog who caught the car.

For the dog analogy, either it dies or nobody in the car is concerned. The dog's aggressive attempt to achieve "catching" the car is a miscalculation. There is zero intent to convey a goal or achievement was reached, because the goal was to attack the car which is the silliness implied in the statement. The "dog" is looking for a fight it doesn't know it cannot win.

You can infer a "what now?" effect, but the gist is, it's playing out of its league and doesn't know it.

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Achieving the impossible doesn't seem to fit in the Harris-Chomsky discussion.

On the contrary, I think it absolutely fits. The nuance you may have missed, is that Harris is saying he doesn't want Chomsky to look like the dog who caught the car, which is different from being the dog who caught the car. Harris isn't expressing fear that Chomsky would actually accomplish the (from Harris' perspective) impossible task of mopping the floor with him, but fear that Chomsky would incorrectly think he accomplished it (and, in the process, look like a happy dog).

In other words, Sam is telling Noam that he'd hate to see him be "the one who thinks (and acts as if) he has achieved his (impossible) goal," when he actually hasn't. This is an insult to Chomsky's grasp of the situation, which absolutely seems to fit.

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Understand that there was a joke going around in, I think, the mid 60s:

Some guy is driving down a country road and a dog sets off in pursuit, snapping at the wheels of the car. After maybe a half mile the guy slowly stops the car, rolls down his window, and says to the dog "OK, you caught me. Now what are you going to do with me?" The dog, of course, gives him a somewhat dazed look and slowly wanders off.

The point is that the dog's pursuit was pointless (if that sentence makes any sense). The dog was chasing the car simply because it's in his nature to chase cars, and he had no actual goal.

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