Cat got your tounge

Anybody who knows me can vouch for the fact that I am not one to tell animal stories, dress dogs, cook pet food or, god forbid, push four-legged friends around in strollers. In fact, I have always found it downright annoying when people go on and on about their pets.

This is why it is so shocking that I have totally fallen for my family’s new furry addition. Despite the fact that she routinely crawls on my laptop as I write, sleeps on my neck, attacks my moving toes, trips me in the hallway and shoves her nose between my fingers in a blatant attention-grabbing ploy, I have come to adore her. Our new kitty, Dab, is definitely the most spunky, jumpy, speedy, mischievous little short-haired critter that ever lived.

Aside from her magnetic personality, there is another reason to love her—words. From a language perspective, there is no way we can deny the importance of cats. The Oxford English Dictionary has more than 100 entries of cat-derived words and idioms. Just consider the common ‘fraidy-cat,’ ‘catty,’ ‘cattail,’ ‘catwalk,’ ‘hellcat,’ ‘kit-cat,’ ‘cat-suit,’ ‘catfish,’ ‘catcall,’ ‘catnap,’ ‘catnip’ and ‘caterwaul,’ which literally means ‘cry like a cat.’ Oh, and…in case you didn’t know, the German word for hangover is katzenjammer or ‘wailing of cats.’

Although ‘catty corner’ and ‘catawampus’ do not come from the same origin as ‘cat,’ ‘caterpillar’ does! This furry worm was adorably coined ‘shaggy cat,’ from the Late Latin catta ‘cat’ and pilosus, ‘hairy or shaggy.’ Catta replaced the earlier Latin feles, and passed into the Romance languages and most Germanic languages as a loanword, resulting in cat cognates across language families. Consider German katze, Dutch kat, Italian gatto, Portuguese and Spanish gato and French chat.

Late Latin catta came from the Byzantine Greek katta, which was derived from languages spoken in the Middle East and Northern Africa. The ultimate source of the word is probably Egyptian. This means that even Nubian, spoken along the Nile, and Berber, spoken in Northern Africa, have similar sounding words for cat, kadis and kadiska, respectively. Also related are the Slavic kotuka, Bulgarian kotka, Russian koška, Polish kot, Lithuanian kate, Finnish katti and possibly the Arabic qitt.

When it comes to idiomatic expressions, cats are seriously represented. In some cases we can look to the literal meaning to assess the origin. For example, to look like something that the cat dragged in is an obvious reference to prey. Curiosity killed the cat, while the cat’s away the mice will play and like herding cats are all straightforward references to cat (or mouse) behavior.

The cat’s meow, the cat’s whiskers and the cat’s pajamas all came out of the flapper culture in the 1920s. There was a fad at the time for slang terms denoting excellence based on animal anatomy (consider, the bee’s knees and a flea’s eyebrows). The pajama reference is a little harder to pin down. At the time pajamas were a relatively new and risqué fashion trend. It is also possible that ‘cat’ in this sense referred to a cool, jazzy person.

It is not unusual for idioms to have uncertain origins. Over time, they usually accumulate several stories, or folk etymology, which provide colorful explanations for the provenance of these nonsensical expressions. For example, one explanation for let the cat out of the bag describes a marketplace practice of switching a cat for a piglet, while another outlines the particularly brutal punishment for sailors of being pounded by a knotted rope, commonly called a cat-o-nine-tails (kept in a bag when not in use). This rope may also be the source of the idiom cat got your tongue as sailors tended to stay quiet for a long time after a sound flogging.

Other cat idioms with uncertain origins, documented as far back as the 17th century, are raining cats and dogs, more than one way to skin a cat and grin like a Cheshire cat. Although the Cheshire cat was popularized in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the term was first attested a century earlier. Google provides a multitude of fascinating (and gruesome) stories claiming to be the true sources of these phrases, but all accounts are generally refuted.

As for the proverb a cat has nine lives, this is a clear reference to agility, intelligence and craftiness of these furry quadrupeds—they are pros at getting out of tough predicaments. A recent New York Times’ article reveals that “unlike other domestic animals, which were tamed by people, cats probably domesticated themselves, which could account for the haughty independence of their descendants…domestication came from the cat side, not the human side.” 

My six-year-old, Felix, who himself shares a name with a very famous crafty cat, has made it clear that he is to be considered Dab’s papa. This makes me our cat’s grandmother while his brother has the honor of uncle. We have all accepted our positions as Felix can be quite convincing. He wakes up every morning and descends down the hall with Dab slung over his shoulder. Together they prowl the kitchen for food—two cool cats with many adventures ahead of them.   


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