The Cat’s Out of the Bag: Idioms

Welcome to Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, where we enter the labyrinth of language and look for something interesting among the hedges. Today’s topic is in honor of our feline friends. I was going to do a post with idioms that included both dogs and cats, but there are so many that I will need to cover “man’s best friend” next Wednesday. Stay tuned.

In full disclosure, I am a cat person. While there are some lovely dogs out there, I gravitate toward the furballs who largely ignore you unless they want food or petting on their own schedule. In case you care, here are my cats:

Eclipse & Shadow

And now for the feline-inspired idioms and their origins.

The cat’s meow. A lot of slang words were introduced in the 1920s, including “the cat’s meow” — meaning something excellent or outstanding. It was introduced by American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, who also coined “dumbbell,” “for crying out loud,” “hard-boiled,” and another popular cat idiom: “the cat’s pajamas.” From what I can tell, there’s no rhyme or reason to it. But it caught on.

Couldn't find "cat's meow" comic. Here's "dumb-bell."

Cat got your tongue? Several theories exist on this one. Here’s one to make you cringe: Hundreds of years ago in the Mideast, liars had their tongues cut out and fed to the king’s pet felines. Well, maybe. But the first incidence of the term in the Oxford English Dictionary occurs in 1911, so this phrase wasn’t used much before then. It may simply be the general superstition about cats (e.g., don’t cross a black cat) that inspires this phrase meaning you can’t talk.

Not enough room to swing a cat. I had heard that this phrase came from 17th century sailors swinging the cat o’ nine tails, but according to Albert Jack (White Elephants & Red Herrings) this isn’t about a whip. Two centuries earlier, there was a “sport” of swinging cats by the tail into the air, making them moving targets for archers. This activity occurred at fairs and festivals, and if there were large crowds, there wouldn’t enough be room to swing a cat.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. After reading the swing-a-cat story, I was so relieved to find that this one isn’t even about cats! Catfish are easy to catch, but their skin is difficult to remove. Apparently, there are several ways to skin a catfish, but no one in their right mind would skin a beautiful furry feline.

Curiosity killed the cat. The original phrase was “care killed the cat” from Ben Jonson’s 1598 play, Every Man in His Humor: “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.” Don’t ask me what that line means. In Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, it was defined as “Care killed the Cat. It is said that a cat has nine lives [see below], but care would wear them all out.” That same year, the word “care” was exchanged for “curiosity” in The Galveston Daily News: “It is said that once ‘curiosity killed a Thomas cat.'” This new turn of the phrase was used by O’Henry in 1909 in Schools and Schools: “Curiosity can do more things than kill a cat; and if emotions, well recognized as feminine, are inimical to feline life, then jealousy would soon leave the whole world catless.”

I don’t know why care, or worry, would kill a cat to begin with. However, curiosity hasn’t always had the positive connotation it has today. Curiosity has at times been seen as challenging the status quo (tsk, tsk). Lord Byron called curiosity a “low vice” in Don Juan. I personally prefer the line I’ve seen several places: “Curiosity didn’t kill the cat; it was framed.”

A cat has nine lives. The number nine is considered sacred or mystical in some religions and mythology. Think about the trinity of trinities, nine muses, “dressed to the nines,” and a cat’s nine lives. Thus, when people in the Middle Ages had no X-Box or American Idol to entertain them, they threw cats off towers and watched them fall. Surprisingly, cats survived the murderous drop by twisting their bodies and landing on four paws. A cat seemed mystical in that moment: Surely it must have nine lives! My conclusion: The medievalers needed to get one life.

Let the cat out of the bag. Two good options here. First, back in the Middle Ages, people bought their food from the local marketplace. Apparently, some vendors were less honest than others. This idiom comes from a person purchasing a piglet at the market. While the vendor exchanged money and distracted the customer, the piglet in the bag would be exchanged for a cat. Only when the customer arrived home would the secret be discovered, as they “let the cat out of the bag.” Second, and far less appealing to me, there was once a game in which a cat was put in a bag filled with soot and hung on a tree. The game’s object was for competitors to cut open the sack, let the cat free, but not get covered with soot themselves.

Are you a cat person, a dog person, both, or neither? Can you think of any other cat idioms? What are your favorite feline-inspired sayings?

Sources: The Pet Wiki, The Phrase Finder, Red Herrings & White Elephants by Albert Jack, Lambiek Comic Shop, Cat-ch Phrases, The Word Detective, Moggies – Online Cat Guide, Westminster Gazette, Askville by Amazon.com