In the second of a two-part series, Daniel Davies looks at the meanings and possible origins of some cat-related expressions.

Not content with taking over our homes and our hearts (and the Internet), cats have taken over our language too.  Following on from an earlier article, here are 10 more feline-inspired phrases to tickle your whiskers.

Cat’s Cradle

Meaning: A game played with string between the fingers, either individually or with a partner.

Cat's Cradle by Caroline McElroyOrigin: One theory is that the phrase is a corruption of ‘cratch cradle’, whereby ‘cratch’ (related to the French word creche) is an old word for a baby’s manger, in the days when mangers were made of rope or cord. The other theory is that the phrase refers to an ancient fertility rite.  In medieval Europe, some people believed cats could increase the chances of a newly married couple conceiving.  So a month after the wedding, a cat was placed in a specially made cradle – constructed from string – which was then rocked back and forth in the newlyweds’ home.

Fat Cat

Meaning: A wealthy, greedy and possibly corrupt person.

Origin: Given that pampered cats are rarely skinny, anyone in Britain who’s seen to be living the good life might invite this nickname.  But in the USA, it has a slightly different meaning.  First used by American journalist, Frank Kent, it refers to wealthy party donors who are trying to buy political influence.  In his essay, ‘Fat Cats and Free Rides’, published in The American Mercury magazine in the 1920s, Kent wrote: “A Fat Cat is a man of large means and no political experience who having reached middle age, and success in business … develops a yearning for some sort of public honour and is willing to pay for it.”

Let the Cat out of the Bag

Meaning: To reveal a secret, often with embarrassing or damaging consequences.

Origin: In medieval England, pigs were sold in village marketplaces and the seller would keep the pig in a bag, also known as a ‘poke’, to make it easier for the buyer to take home.  In what became a common scam, unscrupulous sellers would trick buyers by putting a cat in the bag instead.  But savvy buyers would open the bag before paying, thereby exposing the seller’s fraudulent secret.  Not everyone finds this theory convincing though.  Some argue that no-one could have realistically mistaken a cat for a pig (even one in a poke) and that the phrase actually refers to a cat-o-nine- tails, the notorious naval whip.  Just before a flogging at sea began, this rival theory goes, the whip was ceremoniously taken out of its bag for all to see, thereby creating the sense that ‘punishment is about to begin’ or ‘terrible consequences will soon follow’.

Like trying to herd cats

Meaning: The difficulty of trying to organise certain things or people.

Origin: Having evolved as solitary animals, even the most homely modern cat will retain a strong streak of individuality.  This makes cajoling a reluctant cat extremely difficult.  As for trying to cajole or herd several – well, good luck!

Look what the cat dragged in

Meaning: An affectionate greeting for an unexpected or overdue visitor, sometimes suggesting a bedraggled appearance.

Origin:It’s not uncommon for domestic cats to bring home dead prey in their mouths, by which time the prey is usually the worse for wear.  Why cats do this we can’t be sure.  One longstanding theory is that it’s a gift – a cat’s way of expressing loyalty or gratitude to his owners.  But more recently a less flattering theory has emerged: given that your cat probably never sees you catching anything, he’s concluded that you’re a useless hunter and is trying to help you out with a tasty snack.  It’s the thought that counts.  Grilled shrew, anyone? 

More than one way to skin a cat

Meaning:There is more than just one way of achieving an aim.

Origin: Although this phrase might chill the blood of any cat lover, it’s probably far less gruesome than it seems.  One of the earliest printed references is in ‘Way Down East; or, Portraitures of Yankee Life’ (1854) by American humourist Seba Smith: “As it is said, ‘there are more ways than one to skin a cat,’ so are there more ways than one of digging for money.”  The good news is that this phrase probably has nothing to do with cats at all.  Instead, its far more likely to refer to catfish (so called because of their long whiskers) whose notoriously tough skin has to be removed before cooking.  Phew!

Pussyfoot around

Meaning: To behave very cautiously or indecisively

Origin: Although this phrase is meant as a criticism, it derives from the immaculate care and caution that cats often show when walking, which allows them, say, to negotiate a cluttered window sill without knocking over any ornaments (or only, rarely). Their extraordinary sense of balance also plays a part.  This sense was once believed to reside in their whiskers, but we now think it’s controlled primarily via their middle ear and develops about 10 to 12 weeks after birth.  Having a tail helps, too.

Put the cat among the pigeons

Meaning: To do something that will create a furore.

Origin: In British-governed India, a popular pastime was to place a wild cat in a sealed pen with a flock of pigeons.  People would then place bets on how many pigeons the cat (deliberately kept hungry) could dispatch within a certain time.  Introducing the cat would understandably cause consternation among the poor birds, which is where the phrase gets its meaning.

Raining cats and dogs

Meaning: Raining very heavily.

Origin: This charming, if old-fashioned, phrase has several mooted origins, all fiercely contested.  One of the most mystical is that dogs, beloved of the pagan storm king Odin, became symbols of the wind, leaving cats to become symbols of the rain.  So a heavy storm was perceived as being the work of both cats and dogs.  A more, earthly explanation originates in 17th century London, when cats hunted rats and mice on the roofs of the rodent-infested city.  In lashing rain, the theory goes, cats would sometimes slip from the roofs and fall on passers-by.  How exactly dogs entered the picture isn’t clear.  Maybe they were chasing the cats and skidded off the roofs too? 

Rub someone up the wrong way

Meaning: To irritate or provoke somebody.

Origin:  This is a reference to cats’ supposed annoyance at having their fur stroked against its natural lie.  Whether this really does annoy them is hard to say.  What we can feel more sure of is that cats don’t like contact or attention when it’s unwanted, whichever way their fur is being rubbed.  They usually let us know.

So that brings us to the end of our survey.  Although we’ve explored a total of 20 expressions over two articles, we’ve barely scratched the surface – we could easily have covered double that number.  So why not continue with your own research and get your paws on some more?

This article first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of The Cat magazine.  My thanks to Francesca Watson, editor of The Cat, for her kind permission in allowing me to publish this on the Daily Mews website.

My grateful thanks to Caroline McElroy for giving me permission to use her picture of a cat's cradle.


A Cats Purr

"Cats make one of the most satisfying sounds in the world: they purr ...

A purring cat is a form of high praise, like a gold star on a test paper. It is reinforcement of something we would all like to believe about ourselves - that we are nice."

Roger A Caras

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