Saturday, 22 February 2014

Cat - And Its Catty Contribution to the English Language

A black and white portrait of an exceptionally handsome cat
It's undeniable - some cats are exceptionally handsome
(photo by Photo Extremist)


[Old English catt masculine (= Old Norse kottr), catte feminine (= Old Frisian, Middle Dutch katte, Dutch kat, Old High German kazza, German katze),
reinforced in Middle English by Anglo-Norman, Old Northern French cat varient of Old & modern French chat from late Latin cattus.}

1(a) An agile, partly nocturnal, quadrupedal carnivorous mammal, Felis catus,
with smooth fur and retractile claws, long domesticated as a pet. OE

1(b) Any of numerous related animals constituting the family Felidae, including the lion, tiger, leopard, lynx, etc.
Also, any of various catlike animals of other taxa. M16

1(c) In full catfish:
(a) any of various mainly freshwater fishes of the order Siluriformes, having several sensory barbels and scaleless bodies;
(b) = wolf-fish s.v WOLF noun;
(c) a cuttlefish or other cephalopod. L16

2(a) figurative. A spiteful person, especially (derogatory) a spiteful or malicious woman; a prostitute (obsolete except in cat-house). ME

2(b) A person, a fellow (usually of a specified kind); a jazz enthusiast. slang. E20

3 A small piece of wood tapering at each end, used in the game of tipcat; the game itself. LME

4 Historical. A moveable penthouse used by besiegers for protection. L15

5 NAUTICAL. (in full cathead, obsolete cat's-head)
a horizontal beam extending from each side of a ship's bow for raising and carrying an anchor;
(in full cat-purchase, cat-tackle) a tackle used in hoisting an anchor to the cathead. L15

6 Historical. In full cat-o'-nine-tails.
A rope whip with nine knotted lashes for flogging sailors, soldiers, or criminals. L17

7 A double tripod with six legs so placed that it always resets on three legs. E19

Cats: people love cats. I can't claim to be their biggest fan myself. It may just be the specific cats I've known, or perhaps my inability to get on with them (I'm starting to feel like a bigot defending his racist beliefs). However, knowing well how much people love cats (if you love cats, by the way, you're an ailurophile), and appreciating that they are rather amazing creatures with exceptional abilities, I've chosen to cover cat in Lexicolatry not so much because of an interesting etymology (Latin cattus, which is rather unremarkable), but because of the influence the cat has on our vernacular, as we regularly employ expressions that celebrate its abilities and traits, while also giving tacit acknowledgement to the fact that humans can be exceptionally cruel to cats and we have rather odd superstitions about them (if you're frightened of cats, you might have ailurophobia).

To bell the cat, for example, is to take the danger of a shared enterprise upon oneself - imagine a plucky young mouse volunteering for the mission of stealthily hanging a bell on the cat's neck during its catnap; imagine him moving like a cat on hot bricks, knowing full well that if he's detected and lets the cat out of the bag, he's not a cat in hell's chance of escape, but will find out quite literally the origin of the expression like something the cat dragged in after a most unpleasant (and literal) game of cat and mouse. While it may seem absurd that a mere mouse try to turn the cat in the pan (reverse the order of nature) by defeating the cat, putting the cat among the pigeons, if you will, if he does succeed it will be enough to make a cat laugh and he and his comrades will all be smiling like a Cheshire cat at his heroics which were, quite frankly, the cat's pyjamas.

The slender feline's contribution to our language is rather impressive, I'm sure you will agree (and I rather think I've barely cat-scratched the surfaces of these catty impression). If, however, you ever feel just a tad fed up of ailrophiles banging on about how great cats are and how superior their senses are, etc, etc, there are a number of things that you can do better than a cat: you have a better sense of taste (unsurprising, seeing as cat's eat cat food), you have better colour vision, and you have opposable thumbs, meaning you can operate the Sky+ remote.

A small kitten
So cute! But don't ask him to record Sherlock.
(photo by JW Copas)

Are you an ailurophile or ailurophobe?

Do you have any favourite feline expressions?

Do please deposit your cattiest comments into the litter-box below.


  1. I really do flippin' love cats.

    If anyone could design a machine to accurately predict which part of its body a cat will suddenly lick for no reason next and when, they'll know a lot more about the nature of the universe than most physicists.

    As for vernacular contributions, don't forget the 'tst tst tst' we use in an attempt to summon them, and the endless nonsense we spout over them if they acquiesce to come to us after a good lick.

    The internet betrays our lack of progress since ancient Egypt, in that we still write all over everyone's walls and worship cats.


    1. Tst ed.....I mean, ps ed, did you ever see Simon's cat? :

    2. I remember my Dad, who is also an ailurophile, telling me that the 'tst, tst, tst' (as you so deftly write it) mimics a mouse's squeaking, thus attracting the cat. And, C, I don't doubt that you flippin' love cats, but you didn't request the word cat, but you did request 'carrot', which you also flippin' love ... ?

    3. Could I request 'wife' please, before this all gets out of hand.


    4. Note in OED: "Panicked request on 'wife' by Clueless"

  2. Another cat lover here! Philofelist is another term for it.
    We only have one, who thinks he's a dog.

    A much used idiom - when the cat's away the mice will play! Oh, and cat got your tongue!
    One of my favourites is 'not enough room to swing a cat'.

    I recently came across the term 'ish wish' for calling a cat to its food. It's Scottish.

    C - I love Simon's cat! I've watched every video!

    1. I like 'not enough room to swing a cat'. It's commonly thought that it refers to the cat-o'-nine-tails but (I believe) no, it literally refers to swinging a cat, which was an old-fashioned method for estate agents to demonstrate roominess in properties they were selling.

  3. Oh! Glorious feline! How I adore you! With your soft tummy that seems to be made for petting and patting. And your tiny little head that's so perfectly shaped to fit my hand. And your amazingly sharp claws that will most definitely be of use when you're hunting but a little less when you're trying to get comfortable on my lap. And that foul breath! You could probably kill a mouse just by breathing in its general direction. I wonder if that's what you're trying to do to me every evening... Hm...

    1. See? What is it about cats and their respective ailurophiles? What other animal would get away with having 'foul breath', let alone having it celebrated in a blogpost comment?

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