A Cat-alogue of Catty Words
The English word cat dates from before 900A.D. – comes from the Old English words: catt (male) and catte (female). The word comes from Old High-German / Old Norse words.
Here’s a collection of phrases and sayings, along with what they mean, and a little bit of history here and there:
- A bag of cats
A bad-tempered person such as: “She’s a real bag of cats this afternoon!”
- A cat in gloves catches no mice
Sometimes you can’t accomplish a goal by being careful and polite. An idiom attributed to Ben Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac
- All cats are gray in the dark
All persons are undistinguished until they have made a name. An English proverb.
- Alley cat
A stray or homeless cat. The “alley” portion probably refers to prostitutes, who at one point literally carried a mattress around with them. The “cat” probably alludes to the mating habits of female cats.
- Another breed of cat
Something different from anything else
- As much chance as a wax cat in hell
There is no chance at all.
- As nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs
Someone with frayed nerves; jumpy. The allusion, of course, is to the fact that cats don’t like having their tails tromped upon. Where the phrase originated is unknown.
- Busier than a one-eyed cat watching two mouse holes
Very busy, almost to the point of being frantic.
- Busier than a three legged cat in a dry sand box
Very busy, almost to the point of being frantic
Resembling or having the character of the proverbial antagonism between cats and dogs.
- Cat around
To live an aimless, immoral life. (See tomcat and alley cat)
- Cat burglar
A nimble, silent, sneaky thief. Refers to the way cats are able to sneak up and steal their prey
Booing bad acting. The expression goes back to the theater of Shakespeare’s time, when men criticized the acting by making noises that sounded like a fence full of cats.
Making harsh noises or cries. Probably came from Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night: “What a caterwauling do you keep here!” (see also Cat’s cats / cat’s melody / cats in chorus)
- Cat-eyed or cat eyes
Able to see in the dark. Coined in recognition of a cat’s ability to see in very low-light conditions.
- Cat got your tongue?
Why aren’t you talking? The phrase probably comes from a custom in the Mideast hundreds of years ago, when it was common to punish a thief by cutting off their right hand, and a liar by ripping out their tongue. These severed body parts were given to the king’s pet cats as their daily food.
What tennis rackets and violin strings are made of. The word came about when the German word “kitgut” was translated into other languages. Kitgut was a small fiddle. The folk tale “cat and the fiddle” probably has something to do with the translation as well. Catgut was usually made from sheep or goat, or occasionally other animals like the horse, pig or donkey — never from a cat.
- Cat ice
Thin, dangerous ice. Ice that would not support a cat, similar to the phrase “skating on thin ice.”
- Cat-in-hell chance
No likelihood of success. It originally referred to the hopelessness of fighting with inadequate weapons. (The complete phrase is: “No more chance than a cat in hell without claws.”)
Fluffy flower bracts of willow and birch trees. The catkins look like small cats’ tails. (Other plants refer to cats also: pussy willow and cat tails.)
Usually weak tea or milk; something fit only for cats to drink.
Sleeping for a short period of time. Reference to the ability of a cat to sleep frequently and lightly
- Cat o’nine tails
A whip. In olden days, people were flogged by a nasty device made up of three separate knottings of three stands attached to the whip’s handle. While the strands may have been made from the hide of cats, the multiple of 9 had already been associated with cats; presumably if a person being flogged survived, they were as lucky as a cat with 9 lives.
- Cat’s cradle
A string game played by children. In early Europe, people believed a cat could increase the chances of fertility in a young married couple. A month after the wedding, a fertility rite was performed, where a cat was secured in a cradle, and the cradle was then carried into the newlyweds’ house and was then rocked back and forth. This ensured an early pregnancy. The string game creates what looks loosely like a cradle, and over time it was called a ‘cat’s cradle.’
- Cat’s eye
Precious or semi-precious gems that have a changing luster; also road markers which reflect car lights (invented by Englishman Percy Shaw). Refers to the coloring similar to a cat’s and to the reflecting of light in a cat’s eyes.
- Cat’s foot
To live under the cat’s foot is to allow someone to control you. Phrase was coined in reference to the behavior of a cat with a mouse or other “toy.”
- Cat’s concert / cats in chorus / cat’s melody
Making harsh noises or cries. Probably came from Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night: “What a caterwauling do you keep here!” (see also Caterwauling)
- Cat’s meow
Something considered to be outstanding. Coined by American cartoonist Thomas a. Dorgan (1877-1929) whose work appears in many American newspapers. (see also Cat’s whiskers)
- Cat’s pajamas
Something considered to be outstanding. The term “cat’s pajamas” comes from E.B. Katz, an English tailor of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, who made the finest silk pajamas for royalty and other wealth patrons. Nothing like a cat nap in Kat’z pjs. (from the book, “Cats out of the Bag” compiled by Terry, Don and Ken Beck)
Alternative: A slang phrase coined by Thomas A. Dorgan in the 1920s when the word “cat” was used as a term to describe the unconventional flappers from the jazz era. This was combined with the word pyjamas (a relatively new fashion in the 1920s) to form a phrase used to describe something that is the best at what it does, thus making it highly sought and desirable.
- Cat’s paw
To be labeled a “cat’s paw” means someone has taken advantage of you and you weren’t smart enough to “cat”ch on.
Also (for sailors): Cat’s paw means a brisk, skittish breeze that might catch you unawares ~ the way a playful cat might paw you. The phrase has its origins in an old folk tale in which a clever monkey tricks a cat into reaching into a fireplace to pull out some roasting chestnuts. The monkey got the chestnuts, but the cat got burned.
- Cat’s whisker
Before diodes were invented, people made a kind of diode by touching a long thin wire against a germanium crystal. This was enough to rectify a radio signal to the point where it could drive a single earpiece. The radio was a “crystal set” and the long wire was the “cat’s whisker”. Presumably, the wire was nicknamed as such because it looked similar to cats’ whiskers.
- Cat’s whiskers
Something considered to be outstanding. Coined by American cartoonist Thomas a. Dorgan (1877-1929) whose work appears in many American newspapers. (see also Cat’s meow)
- Catty remarks
Comments made by a woman, usually about another woman. The phrase came about when a man named Heywood, in the middle 1500’s wrote “A woman hath nine lives like a cat.” Soon, a woman who gossiped about other women was said to be making “catty” remarks about them.
A narrow walkway. Termed as such because of a cat’s ability to balance in very narrow places.
- Clowder of cats
A group of cats. There is a 15th century reference to clouder and later crowder in the book of St Alban. It meant a variety of things but mainly a crowd, or cluster, clotting, coagulating. It appears to be a word which predates the Mayflower pilgrims who sailed from Plymouth by a couple of hundred years.
- Cool cat
Someone who keeps up with the latest trends. The term came about in the Roaring 20’s, and ita meaning hasn’t changed. (see also Hep cat)
- Conceited as a barber’s cat
A person who copies others. Probably a reference to the way kittens learn by copying their mother’s actions.
- Couldn’t cuss a cat without getting fur in your mouth
Referring to tight, cramped spaces
- Curiosity killed the cat
Be cautious when investigating situations. The saying originally was “care kills a cat,” and began in the 16th century. “Care” was a warning that worry is bad for your health and can lead to an early grave; the phrase was a recognition that cats seem to be very cautious and careful. Over time, the word “care” evolved into “curiosity.”
- Dead cat bounce
An automatic recovery in a financial market. Refers to the lore that a cat ‘bounces back’ from death many times.
- Dead cat on the line
Something suspicious or ‘fishy’ is going on. Refers to fishing for catfish. The lines are checked every day, so if there’s a dead catfish on the line, there’s something wrong.
An alternative definition: Science Magazine, about the early 1980’s had and article about colloquialisms and the like. The term Dead cat on the line is an expression from the mid 70s and earlier when many folk had party lines still for their telephone service. If someone was listening in you would hear a click. The way one speaker would alert another to keep the conversation off confidential subjects would be to say, “there’s a dead cat on the line.”
- Dog my cats
An expression of astonishment, similar to “Well, what do you know!” Possibly originally coined by O.Henry (1862-1910) in his short story “Memoirs of a Yellow Dog.”
- Dust kitten
A clump of dust/lint (similar to “dust bunny”)
- Enough to make a cat laugh
Something that is ridiculously silly. Cats don’t laugh.
- Fat cat
A wealthy and privileged person. Cats that are well-fed and cared for are seldom skinny; hence, a person living the good life is a fat cat.
- Fight like cats and dogs
To quarrel viciously.
- Fight like Kilkenny cats
To fight until both parties are destroyed. Lore has it that in the ancient town of Kilkenny, on the River Nore in south-east Ireland, bored soldiers would tie two cats together for sport until they killed each other. This is a popularized limerick about Kilkenny cats:
“There wanst was two cats of Kilkenny
Each thought there was one cat too many
So they fought and they fit
And they scratched and they bit
‘Til instead of two cats there weren’t any.”
- Glamour puss
A glamorous lady. Probably derived from the ancient word “buss” which means “face,” esp. the lips. Over time, the word began to be pronounced as “puss,” associating it with the cat. A reference to the sleek pose of a cat.
- Grinning like a Cheshire cat
Displaying a silly grin. From the Lewis Carroll novel (written in 1865), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
- Having kittens / had kittens / has kittens
A state of rage, similar expression to having a fit, going ballistic, losing your temper. In medieval times it was believed that if a pregnant woman was in pain, she had been cursed by a witch and had kittens inside clawing at her belly. Witches, they believed, could control cats, and could eliminate the kittens. Since a woman believing she was going to give birth to a litter of kittens would become hysterical, the phrase has, over time, come to mean being in an angry panic.
A bad-tempered woman. Refers to the hissing and spitting of an angry feline.
- Hep cat
Someone who keeps up with the latest trends. The term came about in the Roaring 20’s, and its meaning hasn’t changed. (see also Cool cat)
- High as the hair on a cat’s back
- Honest as the cat when the meat’s out of reach
Will not steal if he’s likely to be caught.
- Hotter than a six peckered alley cat
A person of loose morals
- I smell a rat
Thinking there is something hidden or concealed. The allusion, according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, is to a cat smelling a rat.
- It’s raining cats and dogs
It’s raining very hard. The dog, an attendant of the storm king Odin, was a symbol of wind. Cats came to symbolize down-pouring rain, and dogs to symbolize strong gusts of wind. A very heavy storm, therefore, indicated that both cats and dogs were involved.
Another explanation is that the phrase came about in early 17th-century London, when cats hunted mice on the rooftops – during a rainstorm, the cats were washed off the roofs and fell on passersby.
- Keep no more cats than will catch mice
Don’t surround yourself with people who will be dependent on you.
- Let sleeping cats lie
Leave things as they are. A French proverb
- Like a cat on hot bricks
Someone with frayed nerves; jumpy. A similar English phrase is “Nimble as a cat on a hot bake-stone” or “like a cat on a hot tin roof,” which means in a hurry to get away (a bake-stone was a large stone on which bread was baked).
- Like a cat on a hot tin roof
Someone with frayed nerves; jumpy. The phrase originated in Tennessee Williams’ play of the same name. As then, it indicates someone who is jumpy – behaving like a cat would if they were on a hot tin roof. A similar English phrase is “Nimble as a cat on a hot bake-stone” or “a cat on hot bricks,” which means in a hurry to get away.
- Like cats and dogs
Usually, quarreling viciously (as in “fighting like cats and dogs”)
- Like herding cats
An effort that will likely be futile or at least very, very difficult to accomplish.
- Looking like a cat that swallowed a canary
Displaying a self-satisfied grin.
- Look what the cat dragged in
A slightly derogatory comment on someone’s arrival. Origin unknown, but an obvious reference to cats’ tendency to bring home its prey, tattered and torn after “playing” with it for a while.
- Make the fur fly
Start a fight. Possibly a reference to the nursery rhyme The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat; certainly a reference to a cat and dog fighting.
- Morals of an alley cat and scruples of a snake
An amoral, unscrupulous person.
- Playing cat and mouse
Playing a game of strategy and stealth, or playing in a cruel or teasing way.
- Pussyfooting around
To tread or move warily or stealthily or to refrain from committing oneself. This phrase started out as a comment that cats are stealthy and somewhat sneaky when hunting. The term is American in origin and dates to at least 1893.
- Put the cat among the pigeons
A British term which means to cause an enormous fight or flap, usually by revealing a controversial fact or secret. When Britain governed India, a popular pastime was to put a wild cat in a pen with pigeons – bets were then taken to see how many birds the cat would bring down with one paw-swipe.
- Rub someone’s fur the wrong way
To irritate or upset someone. Reference to the annoyance a cat displays if his fur is stroked backwards.
- Scaredy-cat / Fraidy cat
A person who won’t act on a dare, or who is afraid to try something new. The phrase was coined in recognition of a cat’s trait of not standing up against a dog many times its size.
- See which way the cat jumps
Wait and see what happens. A cruel sport in the olden days was to place a cat in a tree as a target; the “sportsman” would wait to see which way the cat jumped before pulling the trigger.
- She’s the cat’s mother
A rebuke. A rebuke to someone who refers to a woman as ‘she’ instead of by her name, either formal or informal. The ‘she’ in the phrase is the female of a cat, the male being a ‘tom’, and is not to be applied to a woman when you’re in her company.
- Sitting in the catbird seat
Being in an advantageous position (alludes to a bird). The first recorded usage was in a 1942 humorous short story by James Thurber titled “The Catbird Seat.” “In the catbird seat” was among the numerous folksy expressions used by baseball broadcaster Red Barber.
Someone who is cranky. Probably derived from the ancient word “buss” which means “face,” esp. the lips. Over time, the word began to be pronounced as “puss,” associating it with the cat.
- Sweeten the kitty
Increase the amount. In faro, the “tiger” was the bank of the house. Gamblers called the tiger a kitty, and thus “kitty” became the name for the payout in various card games. Sweetening or fattening the kitty, then, means increasing the pot or improving the deal.
A domestic cat with a striped and mottled coat. The silks created by weavers in Baghdad, Iraq, were inspired by the varied colors and markings of cat coats. These fabrics were called “tabby” by European traders.
- The cat may look at a king
An insolent remark of insubordination, meaning, “I am as good as you”. An English proverb, or possibly originated from the nursery rhyme.
- The cat’s out of the bag
To pass along a secret. In medieval England, piglets were sold in the open marketplace. The seller usually kept the pig in a bag, so it would be easier for the buyer to take it home. But shady sellers often tried to trick their buyers by putting a large cat in the bag. If a shrewd shopper looked in the bag – then the cat was literally out of the bag. (By the way, the bag was called a “poke,” which is likely where the phrase “a pig in a poke,” which nowadays means buying an unknown, came from.)
Additional interpretation: In nautical lore, a cat-o-nine had to be made new for each flogging. The whip was made, then put into a bag and held while the charges were listed. Then, just before the flogging, the cat would be brought out of the bag. In this usage, the phrase “the cat’s out of the bag” meant something akin to “punishment is about to begin” or “the belt’s off.”
- There’s more than one way to skin a cat
There is more than one way to accomplish a task. The reference is to preparing a catfish (named as such because of its long whiskers) for cooking, which must be skinned because the skin is tough.
- There’s not enough room to swing a cat
The room is very cramped and crowded. In the olden days, sailors were punished by being whipped with a cat o’nine tails (see above). Below deck, there wasn’t enough room to lash the whip, so the punishment was given on deck, where there was “enough room to swing the cat.”
- To bell a cat
To do the impossible. It is easily suggested, but once suggested, no one will volunteer to do it. From Aesop’s fable, The Belling of the Cat
- To get one’s back up
Showing anger or annoyance. The allusion is to a cat, which sets its back up when attacked by a dog or other animal.
- To live a cat and dog life
To always be arguing. Phrase was coined by Carlysle in his book Frederick the Great: “There will be jealousies, and a cat-and-dog life over yonder worse than ever.”
A male who enjoys the favors of many women. The expression comes from a book written in the mid-1700s in England called The Life and Adventures of a Cat. The “hero” of the book, a male cat who enjoyed the favors of many female cats, was named Tom.
- Walk like a cat on eggs
Tread very lightly
- Walk the cat back
To attempt to understand the true nature of a situation by reconstructing events chronologically from the present to the past. Earliest citation ‘I find it inconceivable that anybody could walk the cat back,’ lamented Mr. Petty,” The New York Times article by Robert A. Bennett, February 19, 1984
- Weak as a kitten
Very weak, ineffective, fragile. In the early 1800s the expression was weak as a cat
- When the cat’s away, the mice will play
Without supervision, people misbehave.
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