Posted by: episystechpubs | February 5, 2015

Editor’s Corner: Cats and English

I am definitely a fan of dogs, but today I have an article from the local paper about our language and cats. This article, written by Richard Lederer, was originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on January 24, 2015.

This weekend, the San Diego Cat Fanciers Association sponsors its cat show at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. A clutch of ailurophiles (a fancy Greek-derived word for cat lovers) will make a “feline” to the event in order to view the beauty and grace of the pets who hold the purr-strings to our hearts.

The poet Carl Sandburg wrote, “The fog comes in on little cat feet.” So does a large litter of our words and expressions. Our feline friends not only adorn our lives; they leave their paw prints on our lexicon of words and phrases. It is both ironic and telling that an animal without the power of human speech has made so many ubiquitous contributions to our English language.

Harking back to their larger and fiercer ancestors, many cats have a passion for chipmunks, field mice, birds and other outdoor animals. They proudly deposit the corpses at their owners’ doorsteps or behind and under furniture, a practice that gave rise, about 1920, to the expression looking like something the cat dragged in. While cats are valued for hunting pests, they do not always discriminate among their prey, and the cat that goes after its owner’s prized pet bird may be in for a good scolding. To look like the cat that ate the canary originally meant to look guilty, but nowadays means to appear smug and self-satisfied.

There abound a number of explanations for it’s raining cats and dogs, including the fact that felines and canines were closely associated with the rain and wind in northern mythology. In Odin days, dogs were often pictured as the attendants of Odin, the storm god, and cats were believed to cause storms.

Another theory posits that during heavy rains in 17th-century England, some city streets became raging rivers of filth carrying many drowned cats and dogs. But the truth appears to be more mundane. Cats and dogs make a lot of noise when they fight (hence, “fighting like cats and dogs”), so they have become a metaphor for a noisy rain.

Why can’t some animals keep secrets? Because pigs squeal, yaks yak and someone always lets the cat out of the bag. Not long ago, city slickers had to beware of buying a pig in a poke (bag) from a farmer who wasn’t in any way a country bumpkin. The animals inside such pokes were sometimes cats or kittens the canny country folk had substituted for suckling pigs. When the merchant opened the poke, he often let the cat out of the bag, revealing the crafty farmer’s secret. When the cat ran off, the city bumpkin was left holding the bag.

Both the droopy pussy willow and the tall, reedlike cattail are so called for their resemblance to a cat’s freely swinging tail. Because of that visual similarity and because it “scratched” the back like a cat, some black humorist coined the name cat-o’-nine-tails for the terrible whip. In addition, the first Egyptian scourges were made of thongs of cat hide. The Old English saying a cat has nine lives goes back well before the 16th century, and the nine “tails” of the whip being similar to the nine lives of a cat might have suggested the full name cat-o’-nine tails.

When we say or write no room to swing a cat, we are not referring to the animal but to the knotted cat-o’-nine-tails whip used to punish disobedient sailors. The scourge was too long to swing below deck, so punishment was always applied outdoors and left scars like those from a cat’s scratch.

This shortening of the name of the whip to cat also explains the title of this article. The anticipation of a beating by the cruel cat-o’-nine-tails could paralyze a victim into silence. That’s why “Has the cat got your tongue?” came to mean “Are you unable to speak?”

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory


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