‘Look what the cat dragged in’, ‘curiosity killed the cat’ and a ‘dead cat bounce’. These are just three English expressions with cats of many examples of how our feline pet has characteristics sufficient to enrich our language with metaphors and imagery over many a century.
Indeed this furry creature, brought to our shores by the Romans, has illustrated life as early as Old English with ‘cat has nine lives’ which comes from the proverb “for three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays” and deriving from the belief that a cat is more tenacious than other animals because it generally lands upon its feet without injury: the foot and toes being padded to break the fall.
What English brought us about funny expressions with the cat
Middle English brought us ‘To bell the cat’, meaning to attack a common enemy at great personal risk to oneself for the sake of others; it derives from the allegorical narrative poem by William Langland of Piers Plowman who had a fable of mice who wanted to hang a bell around the neck of a cat. Around the same time ‘A cat may look at a king’, meaning someone of lower status is still able to do certain things in the presence of someone of higher status, comes from a 1562 proverbs book where the suggestion is that whatever your status, you can’t control everything as others will be your equal in some way. The famous, if someone obscure, ‘raining cats and dogs’, meaning raining very heavily, derives either from the 16th century thatched roofs of European peasant homes from where animals seeking shelter fell out during heavy
rains or from the 17th century system of European drainage which was typically so bad that a heavy rainfall would dislodge any of the animal corpses that had gathered in them.
First mentioned in 1768, a ‘cat’s cradle’ refers to a worldwide popular children’s pastime where a box-like shape is made by from twisting a loop of string around one’s fingers; it is usually played by two players, although some variations may be played by one.
What the 18th century period brought us
The 18th century brought us ‘there’s more than one way to skin a cat’ meaning there are many paths you can take to reach the same end and alluding to the multiple ways to accomplish a goal as well as ‘cat got your tongue’ which refers to a situation in which someone has difficulty in saying anything in their defence; it comes from the Navy who lashed wandering sailors with a whip called ‘the cat’ because it typically had nine endings. Indeed this ‘cat-of-nine tails’ was a whip that was used for punishing these evildoers and this latter phrase comes from the superstition that a flogging by a ‘trinity of trinities’ would be both more sacred and more effective; a whip first with three, then six and then nine lashes; the nine-tailed version was originally used in the army and navy.
What about the 19th century?
The early 19th century in America brought us ‘the fur will fly’ which means that there will be serious, and possibly violent, trouble and carries an image of a furious fight between dogs or cats where the sense of two people continually fighting one another brought us ‘to fight like cat and dog’. A little later, by the 1920s, America again brought us ‘cat’s pyjamas’ meaning an excellent person or thing and describing something superlatively good or the pinnacle of excellence and equating to the phrases ‘the bee’s knees’ and ‘cat’s whiskers’ which also originated in the roaring 1920s and is said to have come from the name of the adjustable wire of the early radio crystal sets. A third contribution from across the pond is ‘in the catbird seat’ meaning in a superior or more advantageous position; it alluded to a baseball player in the lucky state of having no strikes and so there being three balls still to play and is a reference made in James Thurber’s short story ‘The Catbird Seat’.
Other imagery demands quite an explanation. ‘No room to swing a cat’, referring to very little space or cramped quarters, alludes to swinging cats at a mark which was once a favourite pastime for sportsmen; sometimes two cats were swung by their tails over a rope; sometimes a cat was swung to the bough of a tree in a bag or sack; sometimes it was enclosed in a leather bottle. As for bags there’s ‘let the cat out of the bag’, meaning to disclose a secret, which came from the days when a trick among country types involved substituting a cat for a suckling pig and bringing it in a bag to market; if someone naively chose to buy a ‘pig in a poke’ without examination, all well and good but if he opened the sack and let it ‘out of the bag’ then the trick was disclosed.
Here is another very common and comical expression
As for the animal’s favourite opponent there’s ‘when the cat’s away the mice will play’, ‘to play cat and mouse with’ and ‘a cat in gloves catches no mice’; the last one meaning if you’re too careful or considerate you won’t always achieve your aim and is a proverb that refers to a cat’s need, when hunting, to use its claws and it suggests that a more aggressive approach is what’s needed. As for claws there’s ‘not a cat in hell’s chance’, meaning to be completely unable to achieve something, is a shortened version of “no more chance than a cat in hell without claws”; and it used to mean lack of peace rather than lack of chance before the more accepted meaning namely: to have no chance, to be helpless or defenceless.
From claws to paws and to ‘be made a cat’s paw of’ is said of someone used unwittingly or unwillingly by another to accomplish the other’s own purpose; it alludes to the fable by La Fontaine of the monkey who wanted to get from the fire some roasted chestnuts and took the paw of the cat to get them from the hot ashes. My favourite chestnut however will always be ‘to grin like a Cheshire cat’ coming, as it does, from cheese which was once sold in Cheshire and moulded in the shape of a cat; the allusion is to the grinning cheese-cat but is applied to those who show their teeth and gums when they laugh. Unless ‘the cat has got someone’s tongue!’ So there you have it, the essential English expressions with cats to enhance your English! Want to learn more fun phrases in English? Read our article on Fun English idioms to sound like a native.
Article written by Adam Jacot de Boinod
Adam worked for Stephen Fry on the first series of QI, the BBC programme. He is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World, published by Penguin Books.