Image taken from planwallpaper.com
Lately, I’ve been running into feline phrases, and this week, for some reason, I am driven to figure out their origins.
And there, I’ve done it again. I was going to try to build this essay slowly toward a focus. Instead, I’ve gone ahead and let the cat out of the bag.
This whole cat-language obsession started a week or two ago. I published a blog post that said something about a thing being kitty-corner from another thing. My friend Marcie responded.
“I’ve always said CATTY-corner,” she wrote. “Have I been wrong all my life?”
I had heard catty-corner, of course, once or twice; it sounded wrong to MY ears, but I was betting it was kind of a regional issue. So I looked it up.
The Grammarist (http://grammarist.com/usage/catty-corner-kitty-corner/) told me this:
There are really THREE versions: kitty, catty, and CATER-corned. (The Grammarist prefers cater.) And they all come, the Grammarist tells me, from the Middle English catre-cornered, which means four-cornered. The term’s morphed through the years to today’s meaning–diagonally across the way,–and any of its forms are acceptable. The region in which we learn to use the term seems to define the choice.
So…no feline influence at all, at all. The Grammarist can keep her cater-,and Marcie can still use catty. I know, at this late stage and age, I’ll never switch from that ingrained kitty.
It is nice to know, for a change, that everyone is right.
And it gets me thinking about English as a catty kind of language.
What about, for instance, the grand old term, ‘cattywampus’? There’s a word I’d love to throw into an appropriate spot. It comes, I learn, from a cobbling of Middle English and early southern dialect.
Will, on Quora.com (https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-origin-and-meaning-of-cattywampus) writes:
It’s a Southern American slang that is over 200 years old in origin. It roughly means askew or not in order and implies something totally deranged and screwed-up. Most recently I heard it applied to highway organization in and around Atlanta.
The word stole a little from Catty-corner and another Southern term Wampus (to flail about).
Oh, I’m looking forward to writing about something totally deranged and messed up, just so I can use this word…which also seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with a cat.
So….let’s put the cat back in the bag and see how it got there.
And, oh, the things I find out when I go digging. The first published use of “letting the cat out of the bag,” Matt Soniak tells me on Mental Floss, was in London Magazine in 1760. A reviewer was critiquing a book; its author must have been just about as discreetly inclined as I am. Matt quotes the reviewer as writing, “We could have wished that the author had not let the cat out of the bag.” (http://mentalfloss.com/article/31180/whats-origin-let-cat-out-bag)
So the term’s meant the same thing for a while as it does now: to let the cat out of the bag is to reveal a secret, probably at a too-early stage. I need to figure out where that all got started, and Matt Soniak gives me two possible scenarios.
The first has nothing directly to do with a cat…or a secret, for that matter…but it does go right to painful consequences. This explanation has it that the ‘cat’ was not a sweetly purring animal at all, but a whip: the cat o’ nine tails used to mete out punishments to errant sailors. The whip was kept in a bag to keep it from drying out; hence, when punishment loomed, when consequences were about to be bruted out, the whipping one would have to let the ‘cat’ out of the bag.
The second explanation does have to do with a cat, but it’s no less ornery. Vendors, back in the day, would sell live piglets to those who wanted to raise a meaty sow or boar. They’d pack those piglets in sturdy bags, where the little thing would wriggle and raise a ruckus—so much so that buyers wouldn’t want to open the sack and check on the little beastie’s well-being. If they did, the piggie might just jump out and run away.
So unwary buyers might get all the way home to find they’d been given a kitty instead of a piggie. This turn of events, Matt Soniak tells me, not only accounts (maybe) for letting the cat out of the bag. It is also the origin of the cautionary saying, “Never buy a pig in a poke.”
At least, there’s really a furry feline involved, to some extent, in this turn of phrase.
And my mind wanders to Cat Stevens, and from there to the cat in the cradle, and I wonder about that—that game we used to love to play in middle grades and middle school: cat’s cradle. So I look it up. And find, again, the feline connection is pretty flimsy.
The game of cat’s cradle seems to have been around since ancient times. It may have been, The Times of India tells me, a good-luck game played by ancient Greeks on special days; the passing of the cradle from hands to hands also spread good luck. (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/What-is-the-origin-of-the-term-cats-cradle/articleshow/1429029.cms)
Wikipedia suggests the game may have originated in China.
But the game’s name had nothing to do with a cat. Whatever the ancient Greeks or Chinese called it, the theory is that the title changed when Christianity became entrenched. “Cat’s cradle” was a morphing of “Cratch cradle.” And a cratch, according to Merriam-Webster, is a manger.
So when we weave those strings around our fingers, we’re not making a bed for a kitty cat. No, we’re weaving a safe, soft place for the little baby Jesus to sleep.
Maybe that’s why I learned to play the game in Catholic school.
But surely some of our cat-language has feline roots. What about, I wonder, the pot of money called, in poker and in other places, a kitty?
I pull up a site called “Say Why Do I…” which has a promising picture of a cool cat in shades next to its definition of ‘kitty.’ And here is what I learn:
…although the term originated in poker games, it’s okay, now, to call any common pot of money a kitty. A PTA, for instance, might refer to the place they put fund-raising cash as its kitty. And there are, says “Say Why Do I…”, several theories for the way the term prowled into our language.
- In the Middle Dutch Language, “kit” referred to the place—be it a bag or a barrel—where someone kept his tools. Card players borrowed that concept in an ironic kind of way. (“Say Why Do I…” tells me that language experts like this explanation the best.)
- Or how about this? “Kitty,” back in the day, was a nickname for women who plied what some call the world’s oldest trade. When gents were playing cards in dens of ill repute, they would throw the money into the lap of a lady of the establishment. The money was held by a “Kitty.”
- “Kitty” is also, the site asserts, slang for prison. So the money in the pot was imprisoned money until one card player freed it by luck or by skill.
- And finally, there’s this possibility. Cockney slang is rhyming slang. (This reminds me of Basher, in Oceans 11, rhyming trouble with ‘Barney Rubble.’) So…money was often tossed, literally, into a hat. Cockney card players might rhyme that with kitty cat, and then shorten that to kitty…
…and again, no sign of a cat hair on ANY of these theories. Funny, isn’t it, how our language works?
But, hey—what about that suave cat wearing the shades on the site I just left? What ABOUT the term, ‘cool cat’?
Ken Fishkin (https://www.quora.com/When-did-Americans-first-use-slang-to-equate-cats-with-coolness-as-in-the-phrase-cool-cat) asserts that it was jazz icon Louis Armstrong who popularized that phrase. Fishkin points to Armstrong’s song, “This Black Cat has Nine Lives” as evidence.
And that connection, at least, has a direct link to our aloof and oh-so-suave family pets. It’s their untouchably unruffled demeanor that makes humans want to imitate their coolth.
Well, I’m feeling just a little bit disappointed in all the cat terms that are really not at all related to cats. I’m feeling snarky and cranky and like I want to be a little bit…catty. Mrrrreoow!
I look up catty, too. The Urban Dictionary tells me this is a gender neutral term (only women can, you’ll excuse me, be bitchy, the site suggests, but ANYONE can be catty.) It means to be “subtly or indirectly insulting.”
And here, too, the cat-connection is strong. Etymonline (https://www.etymonline.com/word/catty) tells me the term was first noted in 1886, and it meant “devious and spiteful.” It evolved, they think from cattish, which means, of course, “pertaining to cats.”
So…all those cat terms and all those kitty terms and only a passing glance to the animal I always believed they gave homage to. English—what a language: affected by region, by story, by sly and clever turns of phrases disguising slightly (or overtly) shady connections. It seems a little askew, doesn’t it? A little deranged and screwed-up?
I love the language, of course, but please just let me say this. When I go digging into it, I have to suggest: English is often cattywampus.