Cat got your tongue?: Cats and the English language

ALTHOUGH I’M SURE any self-respecting cat will tell you that it’s Cat Day every day (in a parallel universe where cats are able to assert themselves through the medium of language), I’ve heard that 29th October is National Cat Day. This is good news – I absolutely love cats. I have one. And I think she is unaware of the fact that today celebrates her species, probably because she isn’t yet able to assert herself through the medium of language. Either way, I’ve taken it upon myself to mark this special day with a little post about cats and how important they actually are. No, really – the Stone Age, the Egyptians (a bit overboard), the Romans, the Internet and more or less every culture in between has revered the feline like no other animal. You can read about cats and culture on Wikipedia or something, but I want to remind you how surprisingly central the cat has been to the English language.

it’s raining cats and dogs – (it’s raining very heavily) – I think this is the first idiom any English language learner learns and remembers. Perhaps because it’s so daft – can you imagine a cat and dog raining together in harmony? No. Nobody knows where this phrase comes from, but it might have something to do with Odin, the Norse god of storms, who was associated with cats and dogs. Another notion is rather quite grim, albeit the most likely: in 17th century English cities, cats and dogs could easily get washed away the crowded, dirty streets in a heavy downpour, giving the impression that they’d fallen out of the sky.

to have a cat in hell’s chance – (to have a very slim chance I don’t know why the poor cat was chosen to be put up against the forces of hell, but apparently it has something to do with the cat’s supposed ninefold ability to stay alive. Not even a cat, with all its predatory prowess and nine lives, would be able to stand up against hell. So thought the people of the 18th century…

for the cat to have one’s tongue – (to not be able to speak– Nobody quite knows where this comes from, but some experts think it’s something to do with witches and their apparent propensity to steal people’s tongues (and blame it on the cat, I suspect?).

not enough room to swing a cat – (for a space to be very, very small) – Again, why subject the cat to being swung around a room? Well, perhaps not, actually, as the unclear origin suggests that the cat being swung was in fact a cat o’ nine tails, the sort of whip used to punish Navy sailors all those years ago. Far more humane, and far more practical, given cats’ fear of water, right?

to keep no more cats than can catch mice – (to use the bare minimum)  – Fairly straightforward, or else you’ll turn into a notorious Cat Lady.

look what the cat dragged in – (to refer to someone in a negative manner) – It’s no secret cats enjoy to drag various small animals into their homes (except mine, who, aged 11, has never caught a single small animal), and the English language also allows you to insult someone in the same way. How marvellously catty.

the cat‘s whiskers/pyjamas – (to be very impressive) – Perhaps a bit easier to imagine than the bee’s knees, this expression describes something wonderful and, ultimately, comes from 1920s America. What it actually refers to is a bit vague, although something to do with the out-there jazz musicians and dancers who, for some reason, might have been known as ‘cats’.

to let the cat out of the bag – (to reveal important information) – An old one from the mid-18th century, this idiom jumps back on board the British Navy’s ship, back to the cat o’ nine tails. Because it was made of leather, it was stored securely in a pouch so the salty air and water wouldn’t damage it. So, if the ‘cat’ was out of the bag, it wasn’t good news. Alternatively, it could have been used metaphorically all along, the ‘cat’ referring to the information meant to stay secret (‘in the bag’). Who knows. I’m sure Schroedinger would have wanted you to keep the cat in the bag (box), though.

the cat that got the cream/canary – (to feel smug– If my cat caught a canary, however, I would be not be happy.

to set a cat amongst the pigeons – (to cause trouble– It makes perfect sense when you visualise it. Not great for the pigeons, but terrible fun for the cat – and for the British colonialists in India, too, who started this phrase, setting a cat loose in a cage of pigeons and taking bets as to how many pigeons the cat could catch. I can only imagine they didn’t have WiFi to pass the time.

all cats are grey in the dark  – (everything is the same until proven otherwise) – I love the sheer randomness of this one, even if squirrels, lemurs, sardines, hummingbirds and praying mantises would all have looked equally as grey in the dark. It turns out that Benjamin Franklin, credited with this phrase, was referring to an older woman upon taking her to bed, and with the lights off could have easily pretended she was 21. Please keep any crass cat- and women-related parallels to yourself, thank you.

cat on a hot tin roof – (to move or behave erratically) Evidence of the power of literature – this one owes its existence to Tennessee Williams’ play of the same name.

more than one way to skin a cat – (more than one way to do something) – If putting it through hell and swinging it around a room wasn’t enough of a punishment, the English language proceeds to skin the cat, but in multiple fashions. There are numerous versions of this idiom, but this one, that one that stuck, is supposedly meant to come from ‘more than one way to skin a catfish’, sparing the cat from more torture.

curiosity killed the cat – (proverbial: said to someone being too inquisitive) – But after all that (and narrowly avoiding being skinned), it’s the curiosity that does the poor cat in. Though according to its origins, it wasn’t actually curiosity but ‘care’, which originally was a synonym for sadness, meaning that after all its nine lives, it has no lives left to save it from sadness. What a sorry end to our poor cat. Meow.

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