You’ve known me long enough to know that I’m a science nerd, but you may not know that I’m a word nerd, too. When I got the chance to explore the origins of some well-known cat phrases, I jumped at it, and here we are.
When it’s raining cats and dogs, you don’t want to be outside without an umbrella, because it’s absolutely pouring. Scholars and ordinary people have put forth a lot of theories about where this phrase originated, but what it comes down to is that the origin is ultimately unknown.
However, I found two of the most likely theories on the Library of Congress website: First, “cats and dogs” may come from the Greek expression cata doxa, “contrary to experience or belief,” as in, “it’s raining unbelievably hard.” The second comes from the writings of the famed satirist Jonathan Swift, whose 1710 poem “City Shower” described floods that occurred after heavy rains in London, leaving dead animals and other assorted nastiness in the streets. This may have led locals to describe such weather as raining cats and dogs. Swift used the phrase in his 1738 sendup of bourgeois culture, the Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, so whether he made it up or was repeating a cliché, his use of the term was most likely where its popularity began.
Often used to shut down children who ask too many questions, the phrase means that inquisitiveness will get you into trouble. But the website Phrase Finder says that the original phrase was “care’ll kill a cat,” and it appeared in Ben Johnson’s 1598 play Every Man in His Humour.
“Care,” in those days, meant “worry” or “sorrow,” which makes a lot more sense in the phrase than “curiosity” when you think about it. The current version of the proverb first appeared in The Galveston Daily News in 1898, when a writer advised that “it is said that once ‘curiosity killed a Thomas cat.’” (My cat, Thomas, is not the least bit amused by this assertion: He says he’s 15 and his curiosity hasn’t killed him yet.)
This phrase means “to reveal a secret, often when it’s dangerous or embarrassing to do so.” According to Mental Floss, it was first used in this sense in a book review in a 1760 issue of The London Magazine, in which the reviewer says, “We could have wished that the author had not let the cat out of the bag.”
As to the term’s origins, there are a few ridiculous and discredited theories, but I think the most plausible is that it comes from another language. The Spanish phrase dar gato por liebre, or “to give a cat instead of a hare,” makes sense because hares meant to be eaten are usually sold slaughtered and skinned, and cats in the same condition are similar enough to rabbits in size and appearance to pass for hares at first glance. But once you got the carcass out of the bag and took a closer look, it would be pretty clear that you got a cat and not a rabbit.
This term means “the best” or “the coolest.” Mental Floss says that the phrase was first recorded in a 1920 dictionary of slang terms used by Jazz Age hipsters. At that time, it was fashionable to coin phrases combining an animal and a piece of anatomy or an article of clothing – “the bee’s knees” or “the eel’s ankles,” for example – for reasons unknown today. If you think that’s stupid, remind yourself that “on fleek” was a hugely popular phrase in 2015 and nobody really knows what it means, either.
You’ve probably heard this phrase in stock market lingo, describing a temporary recovery of stock prices after a steep decline. The term, according to the fine folks of StackExchange English Language & Usage, first appeared in the December 7, 1985, issue of the Financial Times of London. Later, an Associated Press story quoted Raymond DeVoe Jr. at the investment firm Legg Mason Wood, who, after discussing the dangers of trusting a brief stock-market recovery, said, “If you threw a dead cat off a 50-story building, it might bounce when it hit the sidewalk. But don’t confuse that bounce with renewed life. It is still a dead cat.”
The meaning of this idiom is fairly obvious: In the dark, appearances are meaningless. But where did it come from? It turns out, according to the blog Historically Speaking, that it dates back as far as 1500, in a book of proverbs published by Desiderius Erasmus. But it’s been used by no less a luminary than Benjamin Franklin, who, when answering a question from a young man about whether he should (ahem) date an older woman, advised him that in the dark, all cats are gray.
The phrase also appears in Miguel de Cervantes’ book Don Quixote and is even taken, in part, as the title of one of science fiction writer Andre Norton’s first novels, All Cats Are Gray, written in 1953 under the pseudonym Andrew North, as well as a song by the British gloom-band The Cure.
Are there any other cat idioms and proverbs you’d like to learn about? Please share them in the comments and I’ll compile another list!
Read more about cats in history:
About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal rescue volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.