Jewish World Review May 1, 2003 / 29 Nissan, 5763

Richard Lederer

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Consumer Reports

Find the hidden cats | In two recent columns, I've let the cat out of the bag and made a feline for cat words. Now here are some statements about the felines hiding in our language.

In some cases the cat in a word or expression meows clearly. In other cases a cat jumps out from a phrase and catches us by surprise. In a caterpillar, for example, hides "a hairy cat," from the Norman French word catepelose.

What did one cat say to the other while watching a tennis match? "My mother's in that racket." Har, har -- but before aelurophiles experience a high-strung gut reaction, they should know that catgut is a misnomer. Cats aren't killed to manufacture the tough cords for violins and tennis strings; catgut is actually made from the intestines of sheep, and sometimes horses and mules.

Various theories explain the name of the child's game cat's cradle. It may be a reworking of cratch-cradle, the manger cradle in which Christ was born. or a corruption of cratch, a medieval word for hayrack, dating back to 1300. Cratch was, even before this, a verb meaning "to seize, snatch, grab," so maybe the cratching or grabbing of the string became the cat in the name. Then again, kittens playing with a ball of yarn may have suggested the play of children.

Other questions that follow refer to a word or phrase bears no relationship to the word cat beyond a mere coincidence of spelling. But each word or word grouping in the game you are about to play does begin with the letters c-a-t, and these letters are pronounced exactly like the name of the animal, as in "This cat throws rocks at castles: catapult":

  1. This cat is a disaster. _______
  2. This cat is a descriptive booklet. _______
  3. This cat is a huge waterfall. _______
  4. This cat tastes good on a hamburger. _______
  5. This cat is classified. _______
  6. This cat is cryptically buried underground. _______
  7. This cat speeds a chemical reaction. _______
  8. This cat chirps. _______
  9. This cat swims. _______
  10. This cat hopes one day to flutter by. _______
  11. This cat is in a lot of rackets. _______
  12. This cat is a narrow bridge. _______
  13. This cat is a set of religious questions and answers._______
  14. This cat is a whip. _______
  15. This cat is a few winks out of forty. _______
  16. This cat is a bunch of bull (and cow). _______
  17. This cat is a marsh plant. _______
  18. This cat is a game with string. _______
  19. This cat walks on a diagonal line. _______
  20. This cat is a sailboat. _______
  21. This cat is a harsh cry. _______
  22. This cat is a gem. _______
  23. This cat is a dupe, a tool of others. _______
  24. This cat is a type of mental illness. _______
  25. This cat is a place where one is "sitting pretty." _______
  26. This cat shouts its disapproval. _______
  27. This cat is x-ray-ted. _______
  28. This cat is slang for "It's the greatest!" _______


1. catastrophe or cataclysm 2. catalog 3. cataract 4. catsup 5. category 6. catacomb 7. catalyst 8. catbird 9. catfish 10. caterpillar 11. catgut 12. catwalk 13. catechism 14. cat-o'-nine-tails 15. catnap 16. cattle 17. cattail 18. cat's cradle 19. catty corner 20. catamaran 21. caterwaul 22. cat's-eye 23. cat's-paw 24. catalepsy or catatonia 25. catbird seat 26. catcall 27. CAT scan 28. cat's meow,cat's pajamas or cat's whiskers

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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.


04/10/03: The cat's got your tongue
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