ENOUGH TO MAKE A CAT LAUGH ... CATTY SAYINGS
Have you ever wondered where some of our cat-themed sayings come from? Many such sayings go back to more violent times in Middle Ages Europe where our attitude towards cats was ambivalent - on the one hand they were excellent ratters, but on the other hand they were witches' familiars. It turns out that many catty sayings didn't originally relate to felines at all, but to types of whip, ship or even fish. The derivations of many sayings are obscure or interlinked so the section headings in this article may seem rather arbitrary at times and some sayings fall into more than one section. This article was fully updated in 2003.
FIGHTING LIKE CAT AND MOG
Cats and dogs are renowned for their supposed enmity even today, although many households have cats and dogs living harmoniously together. The problem is that cats and dogs do not always understand each other's body language or behaviour. In addition, cats are seen as a woman's pet while dogs are a man's hunting companion. "To fight like cat and dog" alludes to the ongoing enmity between the two species, and by extension to men and women arguing. It probably derives from pitting cats against dogs for sport, something still done illegally as a way of readying dogs for dog-fights. A 19th Century saying is "the cat and dog may kiss, but none are better friends" and also means to fight like cat and dog, albeit in a roundabout, sarcastic way. "To lead a cat and dog life" means to be always snapping and quarrelling. Alternatively, "to live under the cat's foot" means to be hen-pecked or ruled by one's wife. A mouse under a cat's paw is at the cat's mercy.
In its long association with humans, cats have sadly borne the brunt of a number of cruel sports. The sport of tip-cat, where a cat was put in a tree or up a pole and marksmen tried to guess which way it would jump so that they could shoot it, gave us "see which way the cat jumps". Meanwhile, "hang me in a bottle like a cat" relates to suspending cats or kittens in a leather sack or earthenware pot and then beating it with a stick. Small animals are still tormented in this way at some Spanish fiestas, when the pot breaks the deafened and disoriented animals may be bashed and killed. Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) mentions a variant of this barbaric pastime: "It is still a diversion in Scotland to hang up a cat in a small cask or firkin half filled with soot; and then a parcel of clowns on horseback try to beat out the ends of it, in order to show their dexterity in escaping before the contents fall upon them."
While on the subject of bloodsports, there is the provberbial "Kilkenny Cat" or "to fight like Kilkenny cats" ("There once were two cats from Kilkenny, Each thought there was one cat too many, They fought and they fit, And they scratched and they bit, Till excepting their nails, And the tips of their tails, Instead of two cats, There weren't any") which suggests a vicious fighter, or someone who fights like a cornered rat. During the rebellion of Ireland, Kilkenny was garrisoned by a troop of Hessian soldiers, who amused themselves in barracks by the cruel sport of tying two cats together by their tails and throwing them across a clothes-line to fight, betting on the outcome. The officers heard of the cruel practice and apparently resolved to put a stop to it, but he had to catch the soldiers in the act. As the officer approached, a vigilant soldier saw him and cut off the cats' tails with a sword. The cats escaped, leaving only their tails behind. When the officer asked what was the meaning of the two bleeding tails, he was told that two cats had been fighting and had devoured each other except for their the tails.
In Ireland the saying "fight like Kilkenny cats" is sometimes heard in place of "fight like cat and dog". An alternative to the Hessian soldier explanation is that it is rooted in the fighting between two Irish towns and describes a war of attrition where, despite bitter fighting, neither party gains from the conflict. During the 17th Century, the municipalities of Kilkenny and Irishtown contested their boundaries and rights so hotly that that they mutually impoverished each other, leaving little else than "two tails" behind. Political cartoonists at the time may have depicted the opponents as a pair of cats. Today it is still used to describe a bitter, all-out conflict where no-one can win.
A catfight is a dirty fight with claws out, usually between women since women are more likely to scratch and kick while men are more likely to punch. As well as catfights, nasty women are said to be "catty" and unruly women are "hellcats" and while some women may be as a lithe or graceful as a cat, others resemble "something the cat brought in" - comparing them to the badly mauled, half-eaten offerings a hunting cat might leave on your doorstep. A Scandinavian comparison of women and cats runs "if the farm cat's skittish, the farmer's wife is shrewish" (Der katten er skvetten er det sinna kjerring) and no doubt the farmer himself is also somewhat skittish due to his wife's tongue and temper! However, cats (and humans) don't spend their whole time fighting and "No matter how much the cats fight there always seem to be plenty of kittens" (Abraham Lincoln).
Cats can be fierce, wildcats especially, hence the Clan MacDonald motto is "Touch not a cat without a glove" meaning not to pick a fight with a MacDonald as they have claws and know how to use them!. The crest of clan cattan (or chattan) is a "cat-a-mountain salient guardant proper", with "two cats proper" for supporters. The real meaning was to handle the clan respectfully; this usage of "but" means "without" i.e. "touch not a cat without gloves" or perhaps to handle with kid gloves. A cat-a-mountain was a wildcat and catamount is still an alternative term for a cougar."A baited cat grows fierce as a lion" and "play with cats and expect to be scratched" are both suggestive of someone who is playing with fire. Another allusion to feline ferocity and bravery gives the ancient saying: "One day as a tiger is worth a thousand years as a sheep" meaning it is better to distinguish oneself through a brave act (and risk death) than to live meekly and in obscurity you whole life.
A 15th Century saying exhorts one to "beware of cats that lick from the front and claw from behind" which suggests the possibility of double-crossing or back-stabbing or simply someone who is two-face. In another reference to hidden danger, the 18th Century gives us "cats hide their claws". A person, perhaps a bully or someone who has pushed another person to their limit, who is surprised when someone stands up to them, might exclaim "the cat's got claws!"
CATS, WHIPS AND WITCHES
"No room to swing a cat" might relate to the cruel sport of roping two cats together by their tails and slinging them over a branch to fight (as in one Kilkenny cats explanation above), though it is generally believed to refer to the compact cat-o-nine-tails used on ships. Swinging cats by their tails as a mark for sportsmen was also once a popular and barbaric amusement, thankfully overtaken by clay pigeon shooting. A longer version, unambiguously about felines, is "no room to swing a cat without getting fur in one's mouth". As well as referring to the animal, "cat" was an abbreviation for the cat-o'-nine-tails, otherwise known as a flogger. "Cat" is also an old Scottish word meaning a rogue, in which case "swing a cat" referred to the judicial hanging of a condemned criminal. A more plausible explanation is that "no room to swing a cat" was an old nautical term describing the lack of room to manoeuvre using mooring lines a sailing ship called a "Cat" in a confined space such as a dock or narrow waterway A "cat" in this context is a compact merchant vessels (in fact the "cat" with which Dick made his fortune in the Dick Whittington tale was a merchant ship rather than a feline cat). Being compact, any mooring where there was not even room to swing (manoeuvre) such a vessel was very short of space indeed. The arm that projects from a tower or similar to hoist things up is known as a "cathead" and in confined spaces, there would certainly be no room to swing such an arm. Another nautical catty saying is "to cat the anchor", meaning to secure the anchor on the cathead.
However, the most plausible derivation for "no room to swing a cat" is mentioned in Peter Ackroyd's book "London, The Biography". During the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Whitechapel, when a family moved home it was customary to swing the family cat around one room of their new home to deter it from running away (much like wiping a cat's feet with butter in other folklore). The cat was swung around in the owner’s arms - not by the tail! - supposedly to give it a view of the room. Being a poor area of London, many families would have ended up in homes where there wouldn't be any room to swing the cat.
When researching this I found that "swinging a cat by the tail" was a cruel, but popular, amusement documented in newspapers as far back as the 1820s, and that references to "not room to swing a cat" really did refer to swinging a cat, by its tail, at arm's length. There was also a suggestion that it meant "no room to swing a cot" referring to the lack of space for a sailor's hammock.
Cat whipping / Whipping the cat. Francis Grose's 1811 "Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue" gives this definition: A trick often practised on ignorant country fellows, vain of their strength, by laying a wager with them that they may be pulled through a pond by a cat. The bet being made, a rope is fixed round the waist of the party to be catted, and the end thrown across the pond, to which the cat is also fastened by a packthread, and three or four sturdy fellows are appointed to lead and whip the cat; these on a signal given, seize the end of the cord, and pretending to whip the cat, haul the astonished booby through the water. This isn't the only supposed derivation of the saying. Chambers Dictionary defined it as practising small economies, or of working by the day as a dressmaker going from house to house (basically a jobbing tradesman). The Oxford English Dictionary added the definition of blaming someone else for one's offence(s). In Australia, it referred to a foolish action or crying over spilt milk. In France, the idiom “no need to whip a cat” means something was not worth the effort.
"To get the wrong cat by the tail", which means make an error with nasty results, could also hark back to bloodsports or to being on the wrong end of the cat-o-nine-tails. A sailor who went silent before a lashing might be asked "cat got your tongue?". It is also claimed that several centuries ago in the Middle East (the date 500 BC is often given), it was customary to rip out the tongue of a liar, slanderer or blasphemer (cutting off of hands still happens today), thus removing the offending body part. The person might then have the added indignity of seeing the severed tongue fed to cats, either common strays or royal pets. Having one's severed tongue thrown to common strays would have the more humiliating of the two options. if he had blasphemed, it might be fed to the temple cats as an offering straight to the god(s) whose name(s) had been wronged. Alternatively, it could relate to the Middle Ages when witches were put to death. People believed that if you saw a witch, her familiar (often a cat) would steal or silence your tongue so you couldn't report the sighting.
Does "a cat has nine lives" refer to cats' often life-saving agility or to the nine thongs of the cat-o-nine-tails, to a witch being able to assume the shape of a cat no more than nine times or simply to the magical trinity of trinities? English witchcraft has provided "having kittens", meaning due for a shock, from the belief that witches could turn unborn babies into kittens which then scratched about inside the womb. Women having difficult pregnancies could once obtain abortions because of "cats in the belly". Some people get irritable bowels when under stress and which might also have been likened to internal kittens! From the 17th Century comes an obscure saying whose true meaning has been lost: " the cat has kittened in your mouth" which possibly means someone is talking nonsense or sharp (catty) words.
A "cat has nine lives" might refer to the cats landing on their feet after a fall (or throw) which would kill another creature - perhaps cats clung so tenaciously to life that they were believed to have a magical number of lives. More tenuously, it may come from the ancient Egyptian (cat-form) god; the one god embodies nine or has nine lives in one creator being. These nine great gods are collectively called the Nine. It might even refer to the number of thongs on that nautical flogger, the cat-o-nine-tails which would remain useful until the very last thong had broken! However, the naval flogger was usually made of partially unravelled rope, it was made specially for a flogging and was only used once, making a nautical derivation of the nine lives unlikely.
Considering that "curiosity killed the cat" cats must have needed all those nine lives. Feline curiosity makes them prone to getting into life-endangering places and situations. "Curiosity killed the cat" is also said to derive from the 16th century "care kills a cat", which had nothing to do with curiosity. "Care" meant anxiety and too much worry or anxiety was bad for one's health. A cat - and for that matter a person - might worry itself into an early grave. Over the years, the meaning of "care" changed and lost its meaning (except in phrases like "not a care in the world") and the saying mutated into "curiosity" killed the cat". Meanwhile "care killed the cat" came to mean over-indulgence was bad for cats; making them overweight and unhealthy or making a soft pet out of a working cat. Cats were (and in some countries still are) utility animals not pets. Too much care was believed to make it soft so that it didn't do its job of hunting vermin. The curiosity of experimenters has sadly killed many cats and "curiosity killed the cat" or "curiosity killed this cat" is often used, along with graphic illustrations, in protests against animal experimentation.
"May a cat eat you and the devil eat the cat!" is a double-curse I've heard from Irish colleagues. Not only is the person cursed to be eaten by a cat (possibly a witch's familiar), but the cat is then eaten by the devil and the curse's target doomed to end up in hell. Sometimes a single curse just isn't enough!
CATS IN SACKS
"Letting the cat out of the bag" has several possible derivations. The most likely comes from the old practice of selling piglets in sacks (a pig in a poke; poke being an old word for sack); fraudulent farmers sometimes put a cat in the sack and claimed it was a lively piglet. Someone checking the contents literally "let the cat out of the bag". Another saying about discovering things is "good liquor will make the cat speak" from the 16th Century. Inebriated people may talk carelessly and let the cat out of the bag. "Enough to make a cat speak" means something that is good enough to loosen one's tongue, while it is generally strong drink, it could also be a large bribe.
Another explanation for "letting the cat out of the bag" relates to Middle Ages Europe when bloodsports were rife. A cat might be kept in a sack before being released to dogs in a fighting pit. Even today, bagged foxes are sometimes used by British foxhunts. A third alternative refers to the old tradition of drowning unwanted cats in weighted sacks. A soft-hearted servant given this task might take the sack some distance away and release the cat. Cats' homing abilities are legendary and if it returned home unscathed then everyone knew he had let the cat out of the bag! Unless of course it was a case of "never was a cat drowned that could see the shore" (16th Century) which suggests that the end of an endeavour is in sight or that a task is not impossible.
A less likely derivation of "letting the cat out of the bag" is a nautical derivation which relates to getting the cat-o-nine-tails out of its protective leather or baize bag preparatory to a lashing. A less likely derivation relates to getting the cat-o-nine-tails out of its protective leather bag preparatory to a lashing. To "fight like two cats in a sack" probably also harks back to Middle Ages bloodsports - two cats might be put into a sack and bets taken on which one would survive. Another version is "as mad as a bag (full) of cats" and even "as mad as a cat in a sack" which conjure vivid images of the sport and now refer to angry individuals. An alternative, but no more humane by modern standard, is that the struggling cats were put in a sack for drowning. Intriguingly, a variant on this refers to fighting like two rabbits in a sack, which might be a reference to live rabbits in a hunters game sack.
There are references to adulteresses in Turkey being placed in a sack with a live cat. Only the woan's head was outside of the sack. Not only would the frantic cat being clawing at her body, the whole assemblage would be thrown into water, causing the cat to become even more frantic as both parties drowned. Perhaps in addition to a painful punishment, the promiscuous woman was also being likened to the notoriously promiscuous female cat.
As in the British "cat in a bag" there is the European "buying a cat in the sack" which refers to being betrayed by someone. The saying comes from an old story in which the devil gives one an exchange token when someone on a crossway gives him a cat (or other bribe) in a sack by way of payment, but when the devil opens the sack, there's nothing in it. This echoes the old Roman death mythology whereby one had to pay the ferryman in order to cross the river Styx; one should always give payment on arriving at the far bank in case Charon took the money and ran.
WEATHERWISE CATS, CATS AND SAILORS
"Raining cats and dogs" is another saying with multiple roots. The least likely of these is that it comes from the Greek "catadupa" meaning torrent. Well-to-do English families sometimes spoke Greek as an affectation and others might copy this affectation; eventually "raining catadupa" became "raining cats and dogs".
In mythology, cats and dogs are associated with aspects of storms; so foul weather might be "cat and dog weather". Witches were supposed to ride the wind during storms in the form of cats. In Norse mythology the storm god Odin had dogs as attendants. In Japan, tortoiseshell tomcats (rare as they only occur due to genetic anomalies) were once prized as ship's cats by skippers and boat owners as charms against bad weather.
Or is there a more literal meaning? Centuries ago, heavy rain could turn narrow city streets into rivers. Stray cats and dogs that lived off street garbage drowned as water swept through the streets and people seeing the bodies thought that the animals had come down with the rain. One explanation is that raining cats and dogs originated in 17th Century England when city streets were then filthy and heavy rain would carry along dead animals. Richard Brome's "The City Witt" (1652) contains the line "It shall rain dogs and polecats" (polecats are related to ferrets). A similar derivation comes from the fact that cats may have taken shelter in the thatched straw roofs of cottages. In a heavy downpour they would have been flooded out and chased by the local dogs on the ground below.
A Description of a City Shower by Jonathan Swift (1667—1745) gives us one explanation for “raining cats and dogs”. It begins:
“Careful observers may foretell the hour
(By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower:
While rain depends, the pensive cat gives o’er
Her frolics, and pursues her tail no more.”
The heavy shower ends with the city’s rubbish being washed along the open gutters:
“Now from all parts the swelling kennels [gutters] flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odours seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge.
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.”
Cats have long been associated with ships - as ratters and as mascots. The spread of polydactyl cats (more common on the west coast of Britain and the east coast of the USA) is thought to be due to "lucky" six-toes cats being carried between Britain and America. Many "catty" sayings are traced to the cat-o-nine-tails whip used on ships as detailed earlier on.
Dick Whittington's cat was more likely a ship than a feline. A "cat" or "catch" (variation of "ketch") is a strongly built coal-ship ship with a narrow stern, projecting quarters, and deep waist. Sir Richard Whittington made his money by trading in coals, which he would have conveyed in his "cat" from Newcastle to London. The coal-dusted black faces of his workmen would have given rise to tales about the Moors (Arabs). Coal was first traded from Newcastle to London in 1381 and Whittington became Lord Mayor in 1397 - plenty of time for him to have made a good profit from his "cat".
TO KILL OR SKIN A CAT
"There's more than one way to kill a cat (than to choke it with cream)" recommends a change to stronger tactics. It has now been largely superseded by "more than one way to skin a cat" which might have a more literal meaning since cat fur, along with coney, was relatively cheap. The 13th Century Nun's Rule "You shall not possess any beast, my dear sisters, except only a cat" may sound cosy, but is also thought to mean that nuns could use cat fur in their garments while expensive furs were reserved for higher church officials. It's worth remembering that the Russian Blue was once highly prized for its fur. Cat fur is still used for garments and cat pelts are sold in Germany while cats are farmed for their fur (used to make ornaments, often bought by unwitting American and British cat lovers) in China. However, the saying to "skin a cat" most likely comes from to skin a catfish.
While the skinning of either cats for fur or catfish for food are the most likely derivations, another colloquial meaning of "skin" is to beat. The unfortunate feline may have suffered in that way - an early case of "the office boy kicked the cat" which refers to a person venting his wrath on the next person lower down the hierarchy. The bottom of the hierarchy is the office boy and the only person he can take it out on is the company rat.
The use of cat fur for garments gave us "what can you have of a cat but her skin?" indicates that cats are useless for any purpose but one. Though cat fur was useful for trimming cloaks and coats, the flesh was discarded. Cat flesh can be - and has been - used as a substitute for rabbit hence the British nickname "roof-rabbit" sometimes applied to cats. Roof-rabbits were eaten in some English cities during the second World War when real rabbit was scarce and when the urban stray cat population was thriving on increasing rats and mice; some butchers even fattened cats up on scraps and later sold the cat as "rabbit" to unwitting customers (just as horse was sold as beef). There is, by the way, no evidence that a 1940s population of Munchkin-type cats either hunted down rabbit burrows or were wiped out as roof-rabbits.
To confuse the matter further, the pine marten was also known as "cat" (or "tree cat") in parts of Britain and at least some of the sayings about fur and flesh not worth the eating may refer to the marten, not the domestic cat. Martens are related to ermine (stoat) and their fur has long been used for collars and for trimming robes. "What can you have of a cat but her skin" may refer also to leopards, lynxes and the other wild cat species hunted purely for their patterned fur.
And what of "catgut", that tough cord which holds two interlocking rows of metal belt lacing staples on the opposite ends of leather belting together. It is not actually made from "cat gut", not even the guts of fallen-from-grace cats who have had the cream and the canary, but is a tough cord made from the intestines of sheep. "Cat gut" resulted from mistranslation of the German "kitgut", meaning a small fiddle. Similar sounding is the Dutch kattegat, which originally meant "a hole small enough that only a cat can crawl through."
While considering the usefulness of cats for fur or food there is also "Who ate the cat?" A gentleman who had foods stolen from his larder regularly, had a cat cooked and placed there as a decoy. It was taken like the other foods, and became a standing joke against these larder pilferers - presumably causing nausea among whichever of his friends or servants was stealing food and stopping them from stealing more food since they didn't always know what they were eating!
The Spanish expression "pasar gato por liebre" (to pass off a cat as a hare) and the Portuguese expression "comprar gato por lebre" (to buy a cat as a hare) are derived from the practice of unscrupulous individuals passing off cat meat as rabbit or hare; the sayings are equivalent to the English saying "to pull the wool over someone's eyes".
Leaving aside cat-gut and fiddles, what of the famous "cat and fiddle" sign on pubs? According to this article in the Dundee Evening Telegraph (2 April 1904), many of us have noticed the sign of the Cat and Fiddle over the door of English hostelry, the device being generally a representation more or less ludicrous of the animal armed with musical instrument. The origin of the sign is rather interesting, and has as much connection with the present-day form as the Goat has with the Compasses in another familiar and popular device. Here is the story, which has a pretty touch of sentiment about it. A Frenchwoman, a small shopkeeper, had a very faithful and favourite cat, out of love for which she placed over her door the words, Voici un Chat Fidele. "Chat Fidele" soon became a popular sign in France, and very soon it became Anglicised (or corrupted) into "Cat and Fiddle." Cat signs are very popular in France, by the way, as witness the famous "Chat Noir" Cafe of Montmartre.
SMUG CATS, SICK CATS AND SMILING CATS
Cats' diets have given us "like the cat that got the cream" to mean self-satisfied and "like the cat that got the canary" which once meant to look guilty, but nowadays suggests smugness. On the subject of smugness, people might consider themselves "the cats' whiskers" (i.e. well turned out, since a cat is forever grooming its whiskers) even if they resemble "something the cat dragged in" i.e. badly mauled prey! For some reason people who once thought they were "the cat's whiskers" started to think they were "the cat's pyjamas" early in the 20th Century. Later on, things which were top-notch or state-of-the-art might be described as "the cat's meow". "Sitting in a cat bird seat" means being in a favoured or advantageous position.
Back to the cats that got the cream. According to a 19th Century saying, "the cat shuts its eyes when it steals cream" suggests a cat denying it is doing wrong, though this isn't likely to be through guilt. Cats often half-close their eyes when they are enjoying something - including an illicit lick of cream. And what about "as busy as a cat in a tripe shop" from the 19th Century? A term applied to corporate bosses who always get the cream is "fat cats" and there is often talk about industry fat cats. "As busy as a two-headed cat in a creamery" suggests a cat whose two heads are busy licking up milk, cream and butter - far more industrious than a cat with only one head and tongue! Anyone this busy is very busy indeed and quite possibly doing something he shouldn't be doing. A saying I've heard only once is like a cat with nine tails referring to someone who is both smug and energetic.
While a smug person looks like "the cat that got the canary" a person in a difficult situation can "look like a cat with feathers in its craw" (or "maw"). This is possibly Gaelic, but I don't know the exact origins. Depending on the circumstances, it can mean someone has been caught with possible evidence of their crime. Alternatively, it can refer to someone who has said something they shouldn't and who wishes they could swallow their words and thus looks as uncomfortable as a cat caught red-handed. Perhaps they have said something which has put the cat among the pigeons and caused an uproar.
From smugness to nerves - people who are nervous and edgy might be described as being "as nervous as kittens". Kittens, of course, are skittish and fidgetting and unable to sit still for long; an apt description of a nervous person! Of course, when all that nervous energy has been burnt off, they might end up curled up peacefully and "sleeping like kittens" instead.
A 17th Century saying is "cats eat what hussies spare" which is obscure and may having nothing to do with eating. It may be a reference to mating habits rather than their eating habits, since cats are fastidious in what they eat, but seemingly indiscriminate in who they mate with. The "cat" in the saying may refer to a low-grade whore who services clients turned away by more discriminating and less impoverished prostitutes.
"Sick as a cat" could be from their habit of regurgitating hairballs or indigestible food, or from the longer saying "as sick as a cat in hell with no claws" i.e. a cat in an unenviable situation and deprived of its main form of defence. Cats are very subject to vomiting and the vomit of a drunkard was sometimes called "a cat" while the act of spewing was called "shooting the cat". A variation on this is "as much chance as a cat in hell with no claws" giving us "a cat in hell's chance" with a more recent variation being "as much chance as a celluloid cat in hell". All of which suggest someone in an unenviable situation. A lucky person might "land on his feet", a reference to the ability of a cat to land on its feet after a fall. The 14th Century version reads "he is like a cat - fling him which way will, he'll land on his legs" and suggests great resilience or great luck!
The phrase "Smiling like a Cheshire Cat" is associated with Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland". While Lewis Carroll poularised the phrase, the origin pre-dates his works and several derivations have been offered. The "Cheshire cat" in "grin like a Cheshire cat" is said to refer to Cheshire cheese which used to be moulded like a cat. Another is to a coat of arms or even to a family named Catt. One explanation for the disappearing Cheshire cat is a cat carving on a wooden pew in a Cheshire church - as the churchgoer kneels or stands (according to the part of the church service) the cat appeared to vanish and reappear due to angle of view. The allusion may be to the grinning cheese-cat, but is applied to those who show their teeth and gums when they laugh or grin. It would probably have remained a local saying if not for the vanishing Cheshire Cat in "Alice in Wonderland".
Cats may smile, but do they laugh? What about "enough to make a cat laugh"? Cats take themselves very seriously - they are dignified and composed and even if they have a fall or mishap they quickly regain their dignity and composure. It's hard to imagine a cat doing something as undignified as laughing (and certainly not laughing at itself!). Anything that is enough to make a cat laugh must be very funny indeed.
"As melancholy as a gib-cat" comes from Shakespeare's Henry IV. In the later part of the 19th century, gib, or gibbe, (with a hard 'g') was a Lancashire term for a tomcat. However Fennell's "Natural History of Quadrupeds" (1843) defined a Gib-cat or Gilbert as an emascualted (neutered) male cat. He wrote that such cats had a subdued and melancholy appearance.
CATS IN THE DARK
"In the dark all cats are gray" might mean that everyone is alike until they achieve some distinguishing honour. There is also the thought that it has an entirely different derivation "all cats are great at night" meaning that witches and their familiars are at large at night especially since one of the terms for a witch's familiar is "graymalkin" (grimalkin)! A somewhat more modern derivation is that several young men were permitted to kill the many stray cats which infested the area, but were instructed not to kill their superior's wife's grey cat. The undertook this task during the night whilst the cats were prowling and because they disliked their superior, they took great pains to kill his grey cat out of spite and then explained their actions by saying that they did not know they had killed this particular cat since all cats looked grey at night. Another meaning that has attached itself to "all cats are grey at night" refers to harlots. Not only are they sometimes called cats or toms, at night all women look much the same in bed (especially when the only light source is a candle), so it doesn't pay to be too fussy about their attractiveness.
A clumsy person might be "as nimble as a blind cat in a barn" (17th Century). And while on the subject of blind cats, but this time extolling their abilities, there is the 20th century saying "Like fighting a blind cat in a dark room while wearing a blindfold" which means being a multiply disadvantaged situation. The cat can hear and smell its unseen opponent and has teeth and claws as weapons. The human has none of these advantages. Sometimes countered by a statement that "at least the blindfold has been removed", suggesting that the human might now be able to detect something in the darkness; albeit not a lot!
Cat-owners know that cats like domestic harmony and are very sensitive to upsets. A Belgian might exclaim that "the cat is in the clock" meaning that husband and wife are arguing (possibly like cat and dog) and the family cat has sought refuge. In Britain in the 18th Century it might be said that "none but cats may quarrel in my house" in order to stop an argument. What of unmarried cat-owners? Well, "When the cat of the house is black, of lovers a lass will have no lack" or so goes a 19th Century saying, reflecting the fact that black cats are considered lucky in the UK. Oddly enough, in the USA black cats are unlucky and it is white cats which are lucky; white cats have no special significance in the UK. Why should it be lucky if a black cat has crossed your path? It's because that black cat might be a witch in one of her disguises and she hasn't cast an evil spell upon.
Cats rarely do exactly what owners want, hence "like herding cats" refers to a job made difficult by everybody trying to go in different directions and originally applied to software engineers. Another feline saying from the world of work is attributable to "Dilbert" cartoonist Scott Adams - "about as pleasant as combing your hair with a feral cat" indicates a task which is very unpleasant indeed. "Turn cat in a pan" meaning to turn traitor does not refer to supposed feline fickleness, but is from the French "tourner cote en peine", from which we get turncoat.
Feline lifestyle provides more sayings. "A cat's lick" is a half-hearted wash, though cats wash most thoroughly and that quick lick simply attends to an irritating area of fur while "before the cat can lick its ear" refers to something impossible as the cat must wash its ear using a licked paw! An old Dutch superstition is "when the cat washes itself, then surely we'll have a guest". "Catnapping" refers to the cats ability to become fully alert from a daytime doze, or from a cat feigning sleep to deceive its prey into moving so that the cat can continue the chase.
A Dutch saying is "to stare the cat" which is better rendered in English as "stare out" or "stare down" the cat. It means "to be patient and persistent" and anyone who has ever tried to stare down a cat with its unwavering (though not unblinking) gaze will understand exactly what is required. Dutch correspondents tell me that "to stare the cat" sounds incomplete and was probably an abbreviated form of "De kat uit de boom kijken" translating as "Staring a cat down from a tree" which means to be very patient. A similar saying is never try to out-stubborn a cat.
"To be made a cat's paw of" (be used as a pawn) came from a fable where a monkey removes hot chestnuts from a fire using a cat's paw. Someone who lives "under the cats paw" or "under the cat's foot" is dominated by his wife. We also have "can't catch fish without getting your paws wet" meaning can't gain something without making an effort, while someone wanting to stir up trouble might "put the cat among the pigeons". Where there are velvet paws there are concealed claws and someone exclaiming "the cat has claws" is surprised when somebody stops "pussyfooting" around some matter. In England in the 1300s, a man might be said to "stroke a cat" if he approached a trouble or a serious problem quietly and gently - rather than have the problem suddenly scratch or bite him like an upset cat!
From the Netherlands comes more pussyfooting sayings: "He walks around it like a cat around hot porridge" suggesting someone who wants to do something but doesn't know how to handle it! "Looking the cat out of the three" means to just wait calmly and then act - very much like a cat considering whether to do something ... or not.
Cats hate to relinquish a favourite sunning place, even when it gets uncomfortably hot. A fidgety person is like "a cat on hot bricks" or "a cat on a hot tin roof". The phrase "cat on a hot tin roof" was popularised by the playwright Tennessee Williams. In Britain, tin roofs are less common and roofs tend to be made of slate or tile, hence "cat on hot bricks" is more common. Hot cats also give us "like a cat with its tail on fire" and "like a scalded cat" (or "like a scorched cat") which could relate to cats getting too close to the fire, or yet again to the Middle Ages when baskets of cats might be thrown onto fires, or cats might be daubed with pitch, set alight and let loose to run about in panic with their tails literally on fire (there is also "like a cat in a bonfire" meaning not knowing which way to turn). Another saying with a similar sentiment is "like a cat with the wind up its tail" which refers to the skittish behaviour of a cat on a windy day, cats generally dislike gusty weather, especially if the wind does literally catch them "up the tail".
Back to scorched cats there is "the scalded cat fears even cold water" and "a scorched cat fears even a cold stove" which means learning a lesson though not always applying the wisdom correctly and has become over-cautious as a result. In a similar vein regarding lessons learnt and caution, there is "an old cat sports not with her prey" suggesting that wisdom comes with age and experience.
"A cat may look at a king" dates back to the 16th century and indicates an impertinent remark by an inferior or upstart. In 1652, there was a political pamphlet published under this name. Cats are no respecters of status but they are good judges of character and they know who is most likely to be persu,aded, hence the 11th Century "a cat knows whose lips she licks". It's not just the cat who know how to cosy up to someone as a 17th Century saying suggests: "the more you rub a cat on the rump, the higher she raises up her tail". It probably refers to bribery and manipulation - or a spot of back-scratching as we still say today. But at the end of the day, the saying given to us by Kipling tells us that cats are independent: "the cat walks by himself" though second part of the saying is inaccurate because all places are not alike to a cat, since cats always try to return to their home territory.
"Catting around" or "to cat around" means aimlessly seeking amusement, much like a cat seems to wander aimlessly round its territory. The cat is actually far from aimless, it is following cues that we can't see. However, the expression "tomcatting around" is associated with a racy 1700s book called "The Life and Adventures of a Cat". The hero was a cat and the author's name was Tom. Until then, the usual term for a male cat was "ram cat".
CATS AND MICE
Catnapping may mean a cat feigning sleep or lack of interest to deceive its prey (which may be playing dead) into moving. Such hunting tactics give us the 14th Century "as the cat plays with a mouse" and the more modern "playing cat and mouse" which was used in reference to politics. Remember "while the cat's away the mice will play"! The Scottish version is "well kens the mouse when the cat is out of the house". It means when the supervisor's attention is elsewhere, others are free to get up to unseen mischief.
THE CAT AND MOUSE ACT
I spotted this eye-catching poster in the Museum of Science and Industry In Manchester (MSIM) in March 2004.
It was originally a 1913 postcard produced by the Women's Social & Political Union (WSPU i.e. suffragettes). By 1913, WSPU had increased its campaign of destroying public and private property. When caught and imprisoned, the women responsible often went on hunger strike to gain either martyrdom or early release.
To prevent this, the British government introduced the Prisoner's Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act. The suffragettes were allowed to go on hunger strike, but once they became ill they were released. As soon as they had recovered, they were re-arrested and returned to prison to complete their sentences. This successful method of dealing with hunger strikes was just like a cat playing with prey hence the Act earned the nickname The Cat and Mouse Act.
Continuing the "cat and mouse" games theme we also have "if the cat winks, the mouse will run" meaning the need to be alert. The childhood game of tag or "catch as catch can" is sometimes called "catch as cat can" referring to the way in which cats play with their prey - letting it go and then catching it again. Sometimes the prey escapes completely. Kittens often play tag with each other, making it into a real game of catch as cat can, so maybe the saying refers to kittenish play rather than the ghoulish element of feline hunting, however "an old cat sports not with her prey" as she knows it may well escape!
Further comments on cats, mice and hunting abilities made into proverbs include "shy cats make daring mice", "it's a bold mouse who breeds in a cat's ear". "Hunt with cats and you catch only rats" refers to choosing allies wisely, "a cat in gloves catches no mice" and "a muzzled cat makes not a good mouser" which is suggestive of, or a caution against, rendering someone harmless. "When the cat invites the mouse to a feast" means never, or at least not honestly or with the intention of eating the guest! A person might be advised to "keep no more cats than will catch mice" meaning they should not support anyone unable or unwilling to do something in return. It advised wealthy people to keep the retinue to a useful minimum and not tolerate hangers on didn't give a return on investment.
"All cats love fish but fear to wet their paws" indicates someone anxious or impatient to obtain something of value, but without incurring the necessary trouble or risk. "Muffled cats catch no mice" (from the Italian "Gatta guantata non piglia sorce") may be said of those who work in gloves for fear of soiling their fingers, suggesting a loss of dexterity. Alternatively "a cat in gloves catches no mice" could mean not getting what you want by being polite or cautious and needing to take off the kid gloves and take a more direct approach to one's goal!
"A crying cat catches no mice" refers to the need for stealth, being the opposite of the squeaky wheel getting the grease, while crying of another kind is suggested in "beware the cat that sheds tears for the mouse" which means crocodile tears or deceitfulness. And when someone is "about as much use as a dead cat" they are not very useful at all since dead cat's don't catch, or even deter, mice!
Not all cats hunt of course. Some prefer handouts from humans. A Punjabi saying is "cats are dreaming of scraps" which means someone whose stomach is rumbling with hunger. In the Punjab, cats are fed on rind (meat scraps) from the family's meal (so the literal translation is "cats are dreaming of rind") so a cat dreaming of scraps is waiting for the next meal to be prepared so it can be fed. Many thanks to Mr Aziz Qureshi for providing this saying. And in Paris, "la bouillie pour les chats" (food for cats) means something that is a thoroughgoing mess - a "dog's breakfast" according to English idiom.
CATS AND WOMEN
Cats have long been associated with women - sometimes with witches, sometimes with sharp-tongued women ("catty") and sometime with promiscuous women ("cats eat what hussies spare"). Women may have feline beauty ("sex-kitten"), feline disgrace ("catfight"), resemble mauled prey ("look like something the cat dragged in") or be taught to "sneeze like a kitten" i.e. a small, delicate, feminine sneeze.
While that 19th Century lass with a black cat is supposed to have no lack of lovers, there would be a problem if all her potential suitors dislike cats, but it's the men who are really missing out according to a saying from the Netherlands: "The man who doesn't love cats, will never have a pretty woman" which alludes to the close association between women and cats throughout history.
"The trouble with a kitten is that eventually it becomes a cat" (20th Century). Kittens are cute and fluffy, but they grown out of it. A task might start out looking small and simple, but like the kitten it may well grow up into something less attractive and with teeth and claws into the bargain! It is also applied to women - a "sex-kitten" (the young alluring consort of an older man) grows up and the man may consider the mature woman less attractive or even "catty"; alternatively it may become clear that she is stalking his money with cat-like cunning. Sadly, the saying (without any interpretation) can be applied to many of the unwanted cats found in rescue shelters. While considering growing up, "an old cat laps as much milk as a young one" according to a 17th Century. Interpret that according to circumstances - one suggestion is that age may mean experience or it may mean lack of vigour while youth may mean enthusiasm, but not necessarily skill.
FELINE FOOLS ERRANDS AND OTHER MISCELLANY
"To bell the cat" is believed to have come into common usage at the time of an English King who aroused the jealousy of several noblemen by bestowing titles upon favourite architects. When the unhappy nobles met and discussed how to get rid of the King's favourites they used the euphemism "who will bell the cat". It means to risk confrontation for the common good. However, "to stroke the cat" means to approach a problem/trouble in a quiet or cautious manner.
"One sends a cat to England and it says "meow" when it comes home" means when someone is sent on an impossible errand, he comes back just as wise as when he left home. While thinking of impossible or foolish errands, the French have a saying that "it is foolish to carry a cat across a stream". But not all tasks are fools' errands are impossible and "never was the cat drowned who could see the shore"! And if the errand doesn't involve much travel it might be "like a cat's walk - a little way and back" (19th Century).
In the days before Playstations, "Cat's Cradle" was a traditional children's puzzle-game played with hands and string. It involved making box-like shapes by twisting and weaving a loop of string around the fingers. The name is a corruption of "cratchcradle", itself a corruption of the French for manger since some of the string shapes resembled mangers. Cattle's feed racks are still known as crathes.
More common in the world of finance than in daily speech, a "dead cat bounce" is an automatic recovery in a financial market as supposedly unsaleable commodities are snapped up by bargain hunters. A "dead cat" would almost certainly be an unsaleable commodity - "about as much use as a dead cat" - in spite of the cartoon book about "Uses of a Dead Cat". It could allude to the fact that while cats supposedly land on their feet after a fall, even a dead cat will bounce if dropped from a great height. Unfortunately for the latter derivation of the saying, corpses tend to land with a heavy thud (a nasty squelch if they fall from a great height) so the explanation of even dead cats becoming saleable seems more likely. "Catspraddle" (from Trinidad) means an undignified fall; it conjures up an image of that most dignified of creatures landing in an ungainly manner.
"Cat stones", comes from the Scottish "cat stane". Derived from the Celtic "cath". The stones mark the site of a battle. The gory sounding "cat's brains" is an archaic name given to a geological formation of sandstone veined with chalk. Meanwhile, "cat's eye" is a type of Chrysoberyl, although some quartzes are also given this name. Of course, "cat's eyes" are also the reflectors embedded in roads to aid motorists at night or in fog. When struck by headlights, they light up like cats' eyes. "Cat-eyed" means able to see in the dark, while "cat-footed" means light-footed, sure-footed and agile. In nautical terms, "cat's paw" means a light air current, indicated by a ripple on a calm sea. It often heralds the end of a calm period of weather. In nautical parlance, "cat's paw" also refers to a type of loop formed in a rope. A "cat's whisker" was the very fine wire that made contact with the crystal in early crystal wireless sets.
"Cat ice" is thin, almost transparent ice where the water has receded from underneath it; it is to fragile to bear the weight of a cat. "Cat-lap" was a contemptuous name for non-alcoholic drinks, such as the newly introduced tea, while "cat-nap" is a short or light sleep. Such as cats often take throughout the day. In other contexts, "cat-nap" means cat theft, being derived from the words "cat" and "kidnap".
"Cat and kittens" were the large and small pewter pots in which beer was served in taverns, hence "cat and kitten sneaking" meant stealing those pots from the tavern rather than sneaking about like a stealthy cat or kitten.
While a good-natured or easily dominated person might be called a "pussycat", an embittered or scowling person is more likely to be called a "sourpuss". The term derives not from puss, but from "buss", the old word for face. Hence it means sour-faced.
A "cat-call" expresses impatience, ridicule or displeasure, much as a cat might yowl or wail at a feline intruder. Cat-calls from theatre stalls or boxes resembled the caterwauling that occurs when several tomcats line up on a fence to vocally dispute territorial rights or serenade females. A "cats' concert" or "cat's' chorus" might occur on the stage itself; it means a discordant din reminiscent of caterwauling cats. A performer faced with cat-calls might do well to retreat at the risk of being termed a "scaredy cat". Cats are intelligent enough to retreat when threatened by a larger or better armed enemy and other potentially harmful situations; this gives us the British "scaredy cat" and the American "fraidy cat".
All these catty sayings, and many of them not about cats at all, are enough to make a cat laugh!