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Cat and Dog Idioms (and Their Possible Origins)
Cats and dogs have made their way into our hearts and homes over the past several thousand years, so it's understandable that they frequently appear in our language. The origin of a phrase such as "fighting like cats and dogs," is obvious, but have you ever wondered where idioms such as "sick as a dog" and "the cat's out of the bag" came from? Curiosity recently got the better of me (fortunately, it didn't kill my cat), so I did some research on the origins of a few of our commonly used cat and dog idioms. Most don't have clear origins, but there are plausible (or at least semi-plausible) theories behind them.
The Cat's Out of the Bag
Meaning: The secret's out.
Origin: There are a couple theories about the origins of this phrase. One theory says it refers to the cat-o'-nine-tails whip, which some say was stored in a bag. The more commonly known (and more amusing) theory tells a story about trickery in markets during medieval times. Customers could buy livestock at these markets, and once somebody selected and paid for an animal, the merchant would bag the critter for the buyer to take home. According to the story, some less-than-honest merchants would sometimes bag a cat instead of a piglet, and if the customer happened to check the contents, the cat would be out of the bag.
Sick as a Dog
Meaning: Really sick, usually involving nausea and/or vomiting.
Origin: Etymologists say this phrase has been around for over 300 years, and some think the origin is simple. Most dogs are fond of eating whatever they can find, including food or other items that could make them sick (and almost anybody who has owned or temporarily cared for a dog knows what that means).
There's No Room to Swing a Cat
Meaning: It's really cramped/crowded.
Origin: Once again, some people believe this is a reference to the cat-o'-nine-tails. This whip is most well-known for its use in the Royal Navy, and punishments would be administered on the ship's deck because there wasn't enough room to "swing the cat" in quarters.
This theory has plenty of skeptics. The first written instance of the phrase appeared in 1665 (in Richard Kephale's Medela Pestilentiae), while the first recorded time "cat-o'-nine-tails" was used was in the play Love for Love by William Congreve, which premiered in 1695. This isn't definitive evidence against the theory, however, because the phrases may have been used colloquially before they were written, and they may have been written in an earlier work that is now lost to us.
The other theory says that the phrase refers to real cats, since many people weren't as kind to animals in the past as we are today.
It's Gone to the Dogs
Meaning: It's gotten worse.
Origin: This phrase may have come from the practice of giving table scraps to dogs. Today, many people happily share a perfectly good piece of meat with their pets, but back in medieval times, the dogs usually got stuck with partially eaten food and the bits nobody wanted to eat. Sometimes poor people could be found searching through the scraps with the dogs.
I came across another theory that states this phrase originated in ancient China, where dogs had to stay outside city walls. Criminals and outcasts were often kicked out of the city and were forced to go live with the dogs.
Cat Got Your Tongue?
Meaning: Why so quiet?
Origin: Yet again, one school of thought involves the cat-o'-nine-tails. It's said that somebody about to be whipped would be scared silent. A more gruesome theory points to an ancient Middle-Eastern practice that involved cutting out a liar's tongue and feeding it to cats. However, the Word Detective says it's a relatively new phrase (the first written instance is from 1911), and that there's no real logic behind it.
The Dog Days of Summer
Meaning: The hottest, yuckiest days of summer.
Origin: This one has a clear origin, and it has to do with the stars in the night sky. Among the northern hemisphere stars is a constellation called Canis Major, which means "big dog." One of its stars is Sirius, which is often called "the dog star." Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky and is most prominent during winter, but it begins to appear in the early morning hours as we get deep into summer. In ancient Roman times, it was believed that the star added extra heat to the earth, and they called this period the "Dog Days."
It's Raining Cats and Dogs
Meaning: It's raining very heavily.
Origin: Believe it or not, there's no cat-o'-nine-tails involved in this one. Where the phrase actually did come from is still up for debate. The most common explanation says that, during medieval times, dogs and cats would often hang out on thatched roofs, and heavy rains would sometimes wash them off. There is no evidence of this happening in reality, however, it is possible that cats and dogs may have drowned or been washed out of drainage systems during heavy downpours. Johnathan Swift mentions this in his 1710 poem, Description of a City Shower:
"Drown'd Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench'd in Mud, Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood."
Other theories are kinder to our furry friends. Some say the phrase comes from the Greek word Katadoupoi, which refers to the waterfalls on the Nile, or the Greek expression cata doxa, which means "contrary to belief" (as in, "it's raining beyond belief.") Some think it came about because the Norse god Odin is associated with dogs and wind and witches are associated with cats and storms. Others say it's none of the above - that it's simply a silly, fanciful expression.
More fun with words
- The Word Detective
The Word Detective on the Web is the online version of The Word Detective, a newspaper column answering readers’ questions about words and language. The Word Detective is written by Evan Morris and appears in finer newspapers.