Thursday, August 6, 2009

Origins of Cat-Related Phrases

By Julia Williams

As I mentioned in my last article on the origins of dog-related phrases, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of popular sayings that reference our furry four-legged friends. Here are a few of the cat-related phrases and their possible origins.

“The Catbird Seat” means being in a superior or advantageous position. The probable source of this term is a North American songbird named for its ability to mimic the sound of a cat’s meow. Catbirds are known to seek out the highest perches in trees to sing. The first mention of it in print was in James Thurber's 55 Short Stories from New Yorker, November 1942: "She must be a Dodger fan. Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions... 'sitting in the catbird seat' means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him."

“Let the Cat out of the Bag” means to disclose a secret. The most probable origin for this popular cat-related phrase relates to the fraud of substituting cats for piglets at medieval markets. During the Middle Ages, markets were held to sell livestock, produce and other goods. Most of the small livestock was sold alive, usually in a sack so it could be easily carried home. Underhanded merchants sometimes replaced the livestock with a cat, since they were readily available. Unknowing customers would often not realize they’d been swindled until they got home. However, if they opened the bag at the marketplace, they’d “let the cat out of the bag” and foil the merchant’s unscrupulous scheme.

“Cat got your tongue?” This phrase is generally said jokingly to a shy or silent person in an effort to get them to talk, or to find out why they are being so quiet. Like many popular sayings, the origins of this cat-related phrase are murky, but there are plenty of theories. One claims the expression came from the Middle Ages, a time when witches were greatly feared and sightings were reported so the witch could be apprehended. Peasants believed that a witch’s cat could somehow steal or control their tongue so they couldn’t report the sighting. Another theory claims the saying comes from the Middle East, where liars were punished by having their tongues ripped out and fed to the king’s cats. (ewww).

“The Cat’s Meow” means someone or something wonderful or exceptional (as does the phrase “The Cat’s Pajamas”). Thomas A. Dorgan, an American newspaper cartoonist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is credited for coining this cat-related phrase. Mr. Dorgan is also said to have coined another popular slang phrase, “for crying out loud,” which is something that every cat does when their food bowl is empty.

“Curiosity killed the cat” is used to warn people that being too curious can be dangerous. This cat-related phrase evolved from the 16th century saying “care kills a cat” wherein “care” meant worry and/or sorrow. The first recorded use is in English playwright Ben Johnson’s Every Man in His Humour play in 1598: “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care'll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.” A frequent reply to “curiosity killed the cat” is “satisfaction brought it back,” but no one seems to know for sure how this came about.

“It’s like herding cats” means that it’s next to impossible. This is a relatively new cat-related phrase, and I wasn’t able to discover its origins. But as all cat owners know, our feline friends rarely do what we want them to do (unless there’s something in it for them – usually food), so it’s not too difficult to see how this saying came about.

I think I need a catnap now. Or maybe some cat snuggle time. Perhaps both! Catch you on the flip side.

Read more articles by Julia Williams

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