Cats haven’t just charmed their way into our homes and hearts – they’ve curled up inside our very language, writes Daniel Davies

According to most estimates, cats have been domesticated for about 10,000 years.  In cosmic terms, that’s a mere eye blink but it was still time enough for cats to embed themselves in our lives, our language and, if they’re feeling chilly, our beds.

In fact, the sheer range of cat-related idioms in English and other tongues is astonishing – so much so, that this article, the first in a two-part series, only has room for 10 of the most popular.  So, without further ado, here they are in alphabetical order with meanings and origins, and a liberal sprinkling of guesswork.

Cat burglar

Meaning: A highly stealthy burglar who relies on physical agility.

Origin:  This phrase comes from cats’ outstanding natural athleticism, which they owe to such physical attributes as an unusually flexible spine and shoulder blades that are attached with supple muscle rather than rigid bone.  The phrase was popularised by Alfred Hitchcock’s film: ‘To Catch a Thief’ (1955), in which, notorious jewel thief John Robie – nicknamed ‘The Cat’ and played by Cary Grant – is accused of a string of daring robberies on the French Riviera.

Cat got your tongue

Meaning: You have nothing to say or are lost for words.

Origin: One potential source is the British navy, back when it was in the business of flogging wayward sailors with a multi-stranded whip called a ‘cat-o’-nine tails.’ So brutal were these beatings that its victims were said to be left speechless afterwards.  Another possible origin is a reputed custom in the ancient Middle East whereby liars were punished by having their tongues cut out and fed to the king’s pet cats.  Whichever origin is true, we can at least be sure that neither is very pleasant.   


Meaning: A short, light sleep during the day.

Ollie sleepingOrigin: This word comes from cats’ tendency to sleep whenever they can (apart from dawn and dusk, when, as ‘crepuscular’ animals, they often like to go hunting).  On average, cats sleep for roughly 16 hours a day, which means they spend about a third of their lives asleep.  So, by the time a cat is nine, it’s only been awake for three years.  But, as anyone who’s been owned by a cat will know, their sleep is often light – which is why a seemingly slumbering cat can magically appear at your feet at the mere crinkle of a food packet.

Cat on a hot tin roof

Meaning: Someone who seems nervous or ‘jumpy’.

Origin: There’s little doubt about this one – it’s the title of a famous play by American author Tennessee Williams, which won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize and was later made into an acclaimed film staring Paul Newman as Brick Pollitt and Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie ‘The Cat’. Although the American expression has become the best known, some claim it’s a variation of an older British version: ‘Like a cat on hot bricks’.

Catty remark

Meaning: A spiteful comment, stereotypically, made by one woman about another.    

Origin: This is most likely a reference to cats’ sharp claws and hunting instincts, which can be physically wounding – just as a ‘catty remark’ can be emotionally wounding.  Some believe female cats are even better hunters than males because they teach their kittens how to hunt, which probably gives rise to the term ‘copycat’.  It may also derive from the historic (an sometimes unflattering) association of cats with women, which also explains phrases such as ‘cat fight’ for an all-female spat.

Cool cat

Meaning: An urbane and sophisticated person, with a temperament to match.

Origin: This compliment is probably based on the common human perception of cats as calm and unflappable.  Many believe it first emerged during the Roaring Twenties, also known as The Jazz Age, an origin acknowledged in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of cool cat: ‘An admirably fashionable or stylish person; specifically, an enthusiast of jazz.’

Curiosity killed the cat

Meaning: Unthinking or unnecessary inquiry can be risky and even dangerous.

Origin: Although this saying seems to nod to cats’ famed inquisitiveness, which gets some stuck up trees or accidentally locked in garages, it actually began life in a different form – ‘Care killed the cat’, back when ‘care’ meant ‘worry’ or ‘sorrow’.  It first appeared in Ben Johnson’s play Every Man in his Humour (1598): ‘Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care will kill a cat, up-tails all, and a pox on the hangman.’

When it evolved into the modern version is unknown, although the earliest printed reference is in A Handbook of Proverbs (1873) by James Allan Mair, where it’s listed as an Irish saying.

Grinning like a Cheshire cat

Meaning: Smiling broadly, often in a self-satisfied way.

Origin: Many assume this curious phrase comes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) but although Lewis Carroll’s zany masterpiece undoubtedly popularised the phrase, it was in fact in circulation much earlier. The Newcomes (1855) by William Makepeace Thackeray contains the line: ‘Mr Newcome says to Mr Pendennis in his droll, humorous way, “That woman grins like a Cheshire cat.”’ Poet and satirist John Wolcot (who wrote as Peter Pindar) also included it in hisWorks (1770 -1819): ‘Lo! Like a Cheshire cat our court will grin.’  Why only cats from Cheshire – and not, say, Cumbria or Cornwall – are deemed to grin remains a mystery.

Have kittens (usually applies to women)

Meaning: To be extremely upset or worried.

Origin: During the Middle Ages, a pregnant woman who was in pain was thought to have been cursed by a witch to have kittens clawing inside her body instead of a baby – a prospect,  understandably, that would make her distraught (‘she’s having kittens). Although this ghastly myth sounds preposterous to modern ears, it was taken seriously for centuries: records as late as 1654 show that a woman appealed to a Scottish court for permission to end her pregnancy because of the ‘cats in her bellie’.

Katzenjammer (German)

Meaning: A discordant noise, or a terrible hangover.

Origin: In German, Katze means ‘cat’ and jammern is ‘to wail’. So, a Katzenjammer (pronounced ‘catsun-yammer’) is literally a ‘cat’s wail’ – and refers to an ear-splitting noise or a head-splitting hangover.

Although the first meaning is self-explanatory, why it acquired the second is unclear.  Is it because someone with a hangover wails like a cat? Or is it because a hangover can feel like a cat wailing inside your head? Katzenjammers is also the name of a famous German pub in London – presumably because that’s precisely what you’ll wake up with the morning after.

That’s all for now.  The second article in this series, will explore another 10 cat-related idioms.

In the meantime, rest assured that the expression ‘couldn’t swing a cat’ has nothing to do with animal cruelty – and everything to do with a space too small in which to swing a whip!

This article first appeared in the autumn 2018 issue of The Cat magazine, and my huge thanks to Francesca Watson who has given me her kind permission to publish it on the Daily Mews website.    







A Cats Prayer

Lead me down all the right paths,
Keep me from fleas, bees, and baths.
Let me in should it storm,
Keep me safe, fed, and warm.


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