Jewish World Review March 20, 2003 / 16 Adar II, 5763

Richard Lederer

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Categorizing Cat Words | In ancient Egypt, cats were worshiped as gods and killing one was punishable by death. In the Middle Ages, the pagan associations of cats caused them to become outcasts. Today cats have made a spectacular comeback as America's pet of choice.

But whatever the status of cats, their mysterious aloofness, their prowess as hunters, their elegant grace and supple agility and their kittenish curiosity are all recorded in our everyday speech and writing. Whatever their ups and downs, cats have usually landed on their feet and have left their paw prints on our mother tongue.

Herewith I present the first of three columns in which, quick as a cat, I make a feline for cat words in our English language.

The words cat and pussy derive from the Latin and Anglo Saxon names for the animal -- cattus and puus. In some African languages, a man is referred to as a cat, which in American slang gives us the likes of cool cat, hepcat and fat cat.

Cats have kittens, and so does our English language. Kitty- cornered issues from "cater-cornered," which comes from "quatre- cornered," which in French originally meant "four-cornered." By a process called folk etymology, speakers thought that in "quatre- cornered" they were hearing an analogy to a certain domestic feline. In the card game of faro the tiger was the bank or house, possibly because the tiger was once used on signs marking the entrance to Chinese gambling houses. Over the years gamblers transformed the tiger into a kitty, and it became the name for the pot in poker and other card games. Thus, when one contributes to the common store of betting money, one sweetens (or fattens) the kitty.

When the pussycat is absent (or taking a catnap), the mice have free run of the place, and when the cat's away, the mice will play, a proverb that reposes in many languages. Cats, of course, have long been belled to prevent them from killing songbirds, but the expression to bell the cat, meaning "to take on a dangerous mission at great personal risk for the benefit of others," derives from the observation of a wise mouse.

In one of Aesop's fables, the mice held a general council to consider what measures they could take to outwit their common enemy, the Cat. A young mouse stood up and said: "I propose that a small bell be procured, and attached by a ribbon around the neck of the Cat. By this means we should always know when the Cat is in the neighborhood." The proposal was met with general applause, until an old mouse rose and said, "That's all very well, but who will bell the cat?" The mice looked around at one another, and nobody spoke.

On the subject of cat-and-mouse games, we find a curious relationship between social history and phrase origins. Surprisingly, feminists arrested during the suffragette agitation in England in about 1913 inspired the first popular use of the expression to play cat and mouse with. When imprisoned, the suffragettes often went on hunger strikes, and the British Parliament retaliated by passing the "Prisoners' Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act." The bill provided that hunger strikers be set free while fasting, but, when they recovered, they were liable for rearrest to complete their sentences. Critics compared the government's action to a big cat playing with a little mouse and dubbed the legislation "The Cat-and-Mouse Act," which entered common parlance as to play cat and mouse with.

Harking back to its 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.

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JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. He is the host of "A Way With Words," on KPBS, San Diego Public Radio, and a regular guest on weekend "All Things Considered." He was awarded the Golden Gavel for 2002 by Toastmasters International. Comment by clicking here.


03/13/03: Stood up by Oprah
03/06/03: The Word Circus: The Barker
02/27/03: Ana Gram, the Juggler
02/20/03: Spook etymology on the Internet
02/06/03: What's in a President's Name?
01/30/03: Twice in a Blue Moon
01/23/03: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire
01/16/03: Retro-active words
12/19/02: Why I deserve welfare --- actual letters
12/05/02: English for -- make that "by" -- foreigners
11/21/02: Humorously Inclined Informational Products
11/14/02: Disorder in the Court: a Collection of 'Transquips'
10/31/02: Oxymoronology
10/24/02: The Bandwagon
10/17/02: Is life a movie? We all speak their lines
10/03/02: Brave New Words
09/26/02: English is a Crazy Language!
09/12/02: How wise is proverbial wisdom?
09/05/02: A celebration of presidential prose
08/29/02: Food for thought
08/22/02: Jest for the pun of it
08/08/02: Hop up to the kangaroo words
08/01/02: A pouchful of synonyms
07/11/02: Poli-Tickle Speeches
06/27/02: Suppository questions
06/20/02: George Orwell is looking at you
06/06/02: Jest for the health of it
05/30/02: It is truly astonishing what havoc students can wreak on the chronicles of the human race
05/16/02: A bilingual pun is twice the fun!
05/09/02: What's in a president's name?
05/03/02: Slang as it is slung
04/25/02: Abstemious words
04/19/02: This Riddle Isn't Letter-Perfect

© 2003, Richard Lederer