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Cat Cliches: The Origins of 10 Overused Kitty Phrases

We let the cat out of the bag on some famous cat expressions.

 |  Mar 8th 2013  |   10 Contributions


Cliches, phrases, and expressions that reference cats pepper our language. We use them without ever really thinking about their meaning.

Black Cat by Shutterstock.com

It’s nearly impossible to determine how and when many of these phrases developed. (I tried!) There are usually several sources, and often no one can agree on the origin. What we can agree on, however, is that cats have been prominent enough throughout history to make their way into expressions we still use today.

Here are 10 of our favorites, and their presumed meanings and origins.

1. Grinning like a Cheshire cat

This expression describes someone who has a big huge grin on her face. The best-known use of the phrase is in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865.

Alice says to the Duchess, "I didn't know that Cheshire cats always grinned; in fact, I didn't know that cats COULD grin." 

“They all can,” said the Duchess; “and most of 'em do.”

However, there are mentions of Cheshire cats and their grins in works that predate the book, so we can only surmise that Lewis Carroll had heard that Cheshire cats “grin” and used that characteristic for his story. 

2. Fat cat

This expression appears to have developed in the 1920s. According to journalist and humorist H.L. Mencken, “fat cat” back then referred to a rich dude who was willing to contribute a lot of moolah to a campaign fund. The expression evolved over time to describe a financial supporter of any kind, and then further evolved to the modern usage, which is typically used to describe a wealthy businessman.

Young Cat by Shutterstock.com

3. Rub the wrong way

This term is used when, for some reason, you just don't like someone else. "He rubbed me the wrong way." The phrase is said to stem from the act of stroking an animal (in particular, a cat) against the natural direction of his fur. Makes sense! This phrase seems to have been around since the mid-19th century.

Cat gets a bath by Shutterstock

4. Cat’s meow, cat’s whiskers, cat’s pajamas

Apparently these phrases arose in the 1920s to describe something especially fabulous. Being the “cat’s pajamas” is considered especially awesome since, well, cats who wear pajamas are something special indeed!

Other phrases along these lines include the "bee's knees," "monkey’s eyebrows," and "bullfrog’s beard."

5. Curiosity killed the cat

Curiosity killed the cat ... but satisfaction brought it back. Cat at window by Shutterstock

It's not too hard to figure out the meaning of this one: Don’t put too much effort into things that don’t concern you ... or you’ll regret it! According to various sources, it’s likely the expression comes from English playwright Ben Jonson’s 1598 play, Every Man in His Humour. Check out this line: “Helter Skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a Cat, up-tails and all, and a Louse for the Hangman.” We all know cats are nosy, nosy, nosy, possibly to their own detriment, so this makes a lot of sense.

6. Let the cat out of the bag

Your cat might prefer to stay in the bag. Bengal kitten in paper bag by Shutterstock

This phrase is used to mean divulging a secret. It is believed that at medieval markets, dishonest traders selling pigs would give their customers the pig in a bag. They'd tell the customer not to open the bag until they were away from the market (I imagine along with some good reason why). Once the customer opened the bag, they'd discover a cat in the bag, not a pig. So, "letting the cat out of the bag” revealed the secret of the con trick.

7. On the wrong side of every door

This phrase basically speaks to the “grass is always greener” concept. Anyone who lives with a cat knows that kitties always want to be on the side of the door where they aren’t currently standing.

The origin of this phrase may be T.S. Eliot’s 1939 poem, "Rum Tum Tugger" (from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, on which the musical Cats was based, by the way). Rum Tum Tugger is never satisfied and is “always on the wrong side of every door.”

Russian blue by fence by Shutterstock.com


8. Cat got your tongue?

This expression is usually addressed to someone (typically a child) who is silent or not answering a question for some unknown reason. The expression seems to come from the old wives' tale that a cat can suck the breath out of sleeping baby.



9. While the cat's away the mice will play

An expression referring to situations where the person in charge isn’t present and all the others behave badly. According to Dictionary.com, this idiom has been in use since around 1600.


10. Looking like the cat that ate the canary

We promise no birds were harmed in the taking of this picture. Fluffy cat in birdcage by Shutterstock

This phrase usually refers to a person who appears self-satisfied or smug. The origins are unknown (at least that I could find!) but Dictionary.com claims the phrase emerged in the second half of the 19th century.

What are some of your favorites? Are there any cat cliches we missed? Let us know in the comments! 

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