Take a Word.... CAT: Etymology, History, Sayings & a Short Story
Look what the Cat Dragged In!
Well, I explored phrases using ‘dog’ so I can hardly ignore the noble ‘cat’ can I? The cat is well-loved the world over but has some bad press when it comes to being used in idioms.
Cats are independent, they choose their owners rather than the other way round and they have characteristics which no other animal seems to possess.
I once entered a stranger's house to view an item we were going to purchase. I had a spooky feeling that I was being watched but could see no-one when I looked around the room. On looking more closely, I spied a cat which blended in perfectly with the cream leather furniture as it sat, like a china figurine, atop one of the chairs. It was a Siamese and if looks could kill, I’d be six feet under. That was not a cat which welcomed strangers; I was glad to leave and felt the curse of the mummies upon me!
That said, my girls had a cat when they were little; she was a lovely tortoiseshell so I know they can be affectionate. She did have a tendency to bring mice as presents though!
What 'cat' sayings do you know?
In the vein of these articles, stretch out your paws and hunt for phrases to make the whiskers tingle, to make the eyes glow in the dark, to create an atmosphere of silent velvet on sharp stone. Draw on the myriad of sayings at your disposal or, better still, make up your own!
From Middle English cat, catte, from Old English catt (“male cat”) and catte (“female cat”), from Late Latin cattus (“domestic cat”), from Latin catta
Various languages have a similar word: e.g. French ‘chat’ (male cat), ‘chatte’ (female) and ‘chatton’ (kitten).
Now let's look at a few idioms and the like, in the following short story.
Playing Cat and Mouse
Slimy Sid thought he was the cat’s whiskers. His smooth gait oozed arrogance and his smile slithered into people’s heads, leaving a slimy discomfort.
He was propping up the bar in the ‘Cat and Fiddle’ down the High Street. An overweight, wheezing man pushed his way from the door through the melée and hoisted his bulk onto a bar stool.
“Oh, look what the cat dragged in!’ Sid sneered.
The larger man looked daggers at him and ordered a beer with a whisky chaser. Sid had his own weapon ready,
“I’m still waiting for that information, Brady. You know who nicked that crack from my van.”
Brady’s silence annoyed him and his veneer slipped a little.
“Cat got your tongue, you slob?” Sid’s spit-slavered lips were inches from Brady’s nose. Think you can dodge your way out of this one? Think again. I’ll give you ’til 6 tonight.”
Sid, re-cloaked in his smug smile, knocked back his own drink and slithered out onto the street. Composure deserted him again when he almost fell over the pub’s black cat which darted into the building with the ease its nine lives afforded him. Local kids reckoned the cat was the familiar of Slick Sally, whom they were convinced was the neighbourhood witch; her daytime job was postmistress.
Sally was watching, slit-eyed like that cat of hers. That night, as Sid ducked the rain on the way to his van, crossing the road at a lick, he slipped on one of the shimmering cats’ eyes. Sally happened to be passing. She seemed to glide up to him,
“Can I help you?” Her voice miaowed at him.
“B… off! Nosey, catty old witch. You know what they say, don’t you? Curiosity killed the cat!”
“Just thought you might be hurt. I’ll leave you alone. This might soothe your leg if you care to try it.” She dropped a pack of white powder into his hand.
Brady Strikes Back
Even in the shabby shadows, he looked like the cat who got the cream. The Cheshire Cat grin revealed shining teeth, teeth which he smeared with the white powder. He’d got it back; somehow she’d found it or maybe she’d stolen it in the first place? He’d make her pay and next time he saw that black cat of hers he’d kick it to kingdom come, that’d stop it caterwauling all night when he was trying to sleep.
Brady appeared, a ghost from the bricks, voice shattering the night air.
“Think you’re clever, do you, Slimy Sid! Think you can bully us? Well, I’ve got news for you.” His own caterwauling had drawn attention from a few occupants whose curtains were twitching.
“Want to know what happened to that stuff of yours, you stupid slime-ball? I’ll tell you, and this'll set the cat among the pigeons. It’s at the police station, along with a statement from me and from that kid who calls himself a dealer. Thought I was on your side, did ‘ya? Look at my badge and weep!”
Sally's final Stroke
Sid was hopping up and down like a cat on a hot tin roof. Something was not right. His mouth had started to burn, his stomach was churning and his legs wouldn’t obey his befuddled brain.
Slowly, Slimy Sid sank to the slippery surface beneath him. Slick Sally reappeared, looking down at him with disdain,
“That’ll teach you to entertain thoughts of kicking my cat! Sour milk for you with a dose of prison thrown in. If you’re lucky I’ll find the antidote to that by morning.”
Derivations and superstitions are many. We'll look at just a few.
Cheshire Cat GrinClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Cheshire Cat
To grin like a Cheshire Cat is said to come from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll. However, the origin favoured by the people of Cheshire (a county of England), where there are many dairy farms, is that, because the cats there have plenty of milk and cream to drink, they tend to grin!
Another possible origin is that a cheese once sold in Cheshire was moulded like a cat grinning. The cheese was cut from the tail end, so that the last part to be eaten was the head of the smiling cat; hence the fact that Carroll’s cat disappeared little by little before only the grin remained.
Yet another explanation is that carvings were made, on churches and the like, of cats, or carvings which might have been lions. These carvings could have eroded or been inexpertly carved, so assumed a face which looked as though it was grinning.
A Nautical Feel
A cat-o’nine-tails was used for punishment, by way of flogging. It had nine ropes plaited from cat-gut or later other materials, which were bound to a handle, held by the administrator of the ordeal and applied liberally.
Carbonel the Black CatClick thumbnail to view full-size
Luck & Superstition
All cats, whatever their breed or colour, were revered in Ancient Egypt from around 3000 BC and protected by law. The cat became sacred.
More common, however, is the belief that bad luck will befall you should a black cat cross your path.
A common animal for a witch’s ‘familiar’ is a black cat, to aid in her spell-making and to ride pillion on the broom-stick. If any of you have read the charming children’s story of ‘Carbonel’ by Barbara Sleigh, you will know all about this!
An Irish superstition states that a black cat crossing one's path by moonlight means death in an epidemic (shortens the odds rather).
English schoolchildren believed seeing a white cat on the way to school is sure to bring trouble. To avert bad luck, they would either spit, or turn around completely and make the sign of the cross. I'd lay odds on them spitting!
Another English superstition states that if a cat washes behind its ears, rain is coming. Yet another says that a cat sleeping with all four paws tucked under it means cold weather ahead. Wet and cold - well, well, what a surprise!
A dislike of cats grew in Europe in the Middle Ages, particularly in England. A cat is characteristically independent, wilful and stealthy and at that time they multiplied in the cities and became a nuisance; they were known as alley cats.
They were often fed by poor, lonely old ladies and when witch hysteria struck Europe many of these women were accused of practicing black magic. Their cat companions, especially black ones, were therefore also deemed guilty of witchery.
Many societies in the late Middle Ages attempted to drive cats into extinction. As the witch scare mounted to paranoia, a large number of innocent women and their harmless pets were burned at the stake.
Salem Witch Hunts
The notion of witches transforming themselves into black cats in order to prowl streets unobserved became a central belief in America during the Salem witch hunts. An animal once loved had become a creature which was dreaded and despised.
In fact black cats were slaughtered throughout Europe, to the extent that you might wonder how the gene for the colour black was not eradicated - but then we all know a cat has nine lives.
Good & Bad Luck, in Britain....
Many people believe that a black cat brings good fortune and also, that anyone who finds the one perfect, pure white hair in an all-black cat and plucks it out without being scratched, will find great wealth and good luck in love.
In Britain, on the Yorkshire coast, wives of fishermen believe that their menfolk will return safely if a black cat is kept in the house.
A black cat in the audience on the opening night of a show means the play will be successful. In fact, a cat is often kept as a lucky mascot in the theatre and disaster strikes any actor who dares to kick it.
Black cats were once treated like royalty in the homes of English sailors, who believed that keeping them happy would ensure fair weather when they went to sea. They became so expensive that few sailors could afford them!
An old English proverb states,
”Whenever the cat of the house is black,
The lasses of lovers will have no lack.”
In the English Midlands, a black cat as a wedding present is thought to bring good luck to the bride.
.... in Europe....
In the south of France, black cats are referred to as "matagots" or "magician cats." Local superstition says they bring good luck to owners who feed them well and treat them with the respect they deserve.
In Normandy, seeing a tortoiseshell cat foretells death by accident.
Some Italians might believe that a cat sneezing is a good omen for everyone who hears it but a Frenchman wouldn’t want to court back luck by carrying a cat whilst crossing a stream.
It is said that in the southern regions of France, if a young unmarried girl accidentally steps on a cat's tail, she will have to wait twelve months before she finds a husband.
A Celtic belief was that kittens born in May were badly behaved and troublesome. In Celtic mythology, the month of May was a time of ill-omen.
When cats rush about wildly, clawing at curtains and cushions, it means that wind is coming.
....and All over the World
Throughout the world it is considered to be bad luck to mistreat a cat. This worldwide respect for the cat is probably rooted in those ancient religions in which the cat was a sacred animal and where those who harmed it would suffer the consequences.
Never kick a cat or you will get rheumatism; never drown one or the devil will get you.
In what was known as Bohemia, in western Czechoslovakia, the cat was a symbol of fertility and one buried in a field of grain would guarantee a good harvest.
The Japanese prefer their own native short-tailed cat - the Japanese Bobtail - because they are less likely to bewitch humans. Japanese sailors take tricoloured or me'kay cats on their ships to bring them good luck. The figure of a cat with its left paw raised is commonly seen in gift shops in Japan, where they are sold as souvenirs. It is believed that the beckoning cat brings good fortune to its owner.
An American hill country superstition says that a cat can decide whether or not a girl should get married. The debating bride-to-be takes three hairs from the cat's tail and wraps them in paper, which she then places under her door step. If in the morning, the cat hairs are arranged in a Y pattern, the answer is Yes, if the hairs form the letter N, the answer is… you’ve guessed it…. No!
Also in America, black and white, as well as grey, cats are considered to be lucky.
Indonesians and Malays believe that if you wash your cat it will bring rain.
Sailors believe that if a ship's cat miaows and appears to be cross, they will face a hard voyage but if it is bright and lively, there will be a brisk following wind. It used to be said that a contrary wind at sea could be raised by shutting a cat in a canister. Throwing a cat overboard resulted in an immediate storm, though no sailor would dream of doing this as it was considered good luck to have a cat on board.
Occult powers are often attributed to cats. It is said that they also have the power of hypnotism (I think that Siamese cat was trying out something on me!).
A cat with three different hues in its coat protects one against fire and fever.
It is said that to dream of cats is unfavourable as this denotes treachery.
In Tasseography (fortune-telling by tea leaves) a cat signifies false friends and deceit, someone lying in ambush.
If the household cat sneezes near the bride on her wedding morning, the marriage will be a happy one.
When a cat washes its face in the parlour, company can be expected, and when it’s looking out of the window it’s looking for rain.
Should you hear a cat crying before setting off on a journey, you must return and find out what it wants.
No cat which has been bought will ever be any good at catching mice.
When cats sit with their back to the fire, look out for frost or a storm.
“She’s catty.” This is a colloquial description of a female who has a sharp tongue and is apparently spiteful, sarcastic or bitchy.
Someone who acts like ‘a cat on a hot tin roof’ is fidgety, nervous, pacing the floor, can’t keep his feet still. The analogy is a cat on a sun-baked roof, running, making sure its paws don’t touch the tiles for too long so they aren’t burnt.
Cats seem to spend a lot of time on the roof! If you’ve had a ‘night on the tiles’, you’ve been out all night, celebrating or just partying and drinking. Cats out at night often wail at each other from one rooftop to another, also resulting in the term ‘caterwauling’, making loud noises like a cat.
Cat-calling is a shrill yell or whistle to denote dislike or, if it's aimed at women, to cause embarrassment. It was originally used to express disapproval at the theatre.
Another night-time occupation is that of ‘cat burglar’. He needs to be stealthy, to creep around, velvet pawed like a cat.
When you go on holiday you might send your cat to a cattery for its own holiday, whether it wants one or not.
A catfish is an ugly specimen which has long whiskers.
Playing cat and mouse is teasing someone, letting them go, drawing them back, like a cat playing with a mouse, often with the final intention of making them feel bad, not like a cat who finally maims or kills, though the person concerned can be hurt emotionally.
‘Cat’ is the shortened version for machines such as those with caterpillar tracks or a catamaran.
The Manx cat (from the Isle of Man) has no tail or, at the very most, a stubby one.
Raining cats and dogs! - (thanks, Lori) pelting down with rain!
Made up any of your own ‘cat’ phrases yet? Think of a cat’s looks, its characteristics, its variety of colours. Remember, the phrases don’t have to describe actual cats, just suggest the likeness. Here are a few to get you going:
tortoiseshell shadows spat flashes of gold,
black velvet gloved sharpened claws,
kitten eyes lured him to the poisoned cream.
Leave your own phrases in the comments or you might wish to keep them to yourselves for future use! Happy word play!