Jewish World Review April 10, 2003 / 8 Nisan, 5763

Richard Lederer

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The cat's got your tongue | The poet Carl Sandburg wrote, "The fog comes in on little cat feet." So does a large litter of our words and expressions. Let's categorize the cats that run and leap and pounce and slink and purr and meow through our English language. I hope you'll find them to be, in the idiom of the roaring twenties, the cat's meow, the cat's pajamas, and the cat's whiskers, so called because the cat is capable of looking enormously pleased and satisfied.

It is both ironic and telling that an animal without the power of human speech has made such significant contributions to our language. 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. But the true source appears to be quite literal: During heavy rains in 17th-century England some city streets became raging rivers of filth carrying many drowned cats and dogs.

Not long ago, city slickers had to beware of buying a pig in a poke from a country slicker who wasn't in any way a country bumpkin. The animals inside such pokes were sometimes cats 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.

When a cat is attacked by a dog or other animals, it aggressively arches its back, a response that suggested the phrase to get one's back up to describe humans aroused into anger. On the other paw, cats are often pictured as grinning. Charles Ludwidge Dodgson, best known to the world as Lewis Carroll, popularized the Cheshire cat in his children-of-all-ages classic, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The Cheshire cat in the story gradually faded from Alice's view, its smile being the last part of the animal to vanish. To grin like a Cheshire cat goes back before Carroll, and the source could be Cheshire cheeses, which were at one time molded in the form of a cat. Another theory contends that the cat grins because the former palantine of Cheshire once had regal privileges in England, paying no taxes to the crown.

An old British expression advised that "There's more than one way of killing a cat than choking it with cream." This implied that a method of doing something was rather foolish, since cats like cream and wouldn't be able to choke to death on it. But the saying changed to there's more than one way to skin a cat and gradually took on its present meaning -- that there are more ways than one of accomplishing something.

How did we get the expression that forms the title of this column? I'm glad I asked me that because the answer is a purr- fect example of how words wander wondrously.

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.

Cats have long been regarded as tenacious of life because of their careful, suspicious nature and because they are supple animals that can survive long falls. The Old English saying a cat has nine lives goes back well before the sixteenth 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. The anticipation of a beating by the cruel cat-o'-nine-tails, often shortened to the cat, could paralyze a victim into silence. That's why "Has the cat got your tongue?" came to mean "Are you unable to speak?"

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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.


04/03/03: Play Ball!
03/20/03: Categorizing Cat Words
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