Let’s not pussyfoot around the issue; there’ll be no room to swing a cat in here once we’ve done filling your head with these famous feline idioms. These things are the cat’s pyjamas, we’re telling you. It’s time to let the cat out of the bag. We’ve all heard of these well-loved expressions that often slip into our everyday dialect without us even realising. Idioms are defined as a turn of phrase or expression that has figurative, or sometimes literal meaning. Just like Cockney Rhyming Slang and txt speech, our lexicon has developed over time taking on influences from our cultural settings. The origins of these sometimes obscure phrases date back as early as Shakespearean playwrights. But here at Old Tat, we’re curious about the many idioms that revolve around our favourite felines friends. We explore the etymology…
Cat got your tongue? It certainly hasn’t. This idiomatic question is usually posed to someone staying silent when expected to be speaking, especially if they’re keeping shtum. Quite contrarily, you might gathered that we just can’t keep quiet. A more updated version of the phrase ‘Cat got your thumbs?’ apparently applies to digital communication.
Pussyfooting around: A phrase more effective when delivered with a bit of cattitude, it denotes someone who may be treading overly cautiously around a subject or person. It is said to be inspired by the stealthy hunting tactics of feisty felines whilst patrolling the garden. It supposedly dates back to at least 1893.
No room to swing a cat: I beg you not to try this one at home unless you want a scratching post for an arm. Suggesting that a space is small or confined, idiomatically this phrase references the infamous ‘Cat-o’-Nine-Tails’ whip often implemented for severe punishment for slaves. When rearranging the furniture next, be sure to opt for the feline-friendly tape measure instead.
Curiosity killed the cat: We hope not, because if we were talking literally, we’d have hundreds of feline fatalities on our hands by the end of this feature. ‘Curiosity Killed the Cat’ is used to warn of the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation. Originally noted as ‘Care Killed The Cat’, the expression hails back to the 1500s and playwrights Ben Johnson and William Shakespeare. The earliest version as we know it was recorded in the Handbook of Proverbs 1873.
Let the cat out of the bag: This translates to ‘letting a secret out’. For all those blabbermouths who know this phrase all too well, they’ll be interested to know that it is thought to date back to the 1500s and has interesting origins. The idiom comes from the idea of selling someone what they think is a pig inside a bag at a market, which actually contains only a cat. If you ‘Let the cat out of the bag’ you disclosed the trick.
Look what the cat dragged in: A mocking phrase offered upon the arrival of someone either looking worse for wear or not-so popular. Used in context, “Whilst sneaking into the house post-cocktails at 4am, a fake eyelash stuck in my fringe and heels slung over my shoulder, my expectant mother peered around the door. “Oh! Look what the cat dragged in!” she sneered, examining my dishevelled drunken self.” Indeed, cats do bring in some nasty surprises.
Cat’s pyjamas: Often used to refer to something remarkable. See also ‘Cat’s Whiskers’ and synonym the ‘Bee’s Knees’. This idioms’ roots are firmly rooted in flapper fashion in the US. The girls of the 1920s, branded ‘cats’, would turn up to parties in their best silk nightwear – hence the birth of the phrase. This is one of our favourite idioms and a brilliant excuse to spend the next half hour cooing over disgruntled cats in baby grows on Instagram.
Let’s just say, we’re glad idioms are mostly figurative only. If most were taken literally, we’d have some seriously miserable moggies on our hands.
Illustration by Abbie Freeman
Words by Alice Freeman