How could a cat get your tongue ? Scholars believe that this expression was derived from a barbaric custom in the Middle East several centuries ago, when it was common to dispense horrific punishments to criminals, one of which was to rip out the tongue from a person who had supposedly lied. Other punishments included chopping off the hand of a thief, and those severed body parts were then given to the king's pet cats as their daily food. Yuch!!!
In Medieval England, buyers would bring their tender young pigs to sell in the common marketplace. However, there were some unethical sellers who would try to trick buyers by concealing large cats in the bags instead of suckling pigs. Shrewd shoppers quickly caught on to this tactic, and would demand the sack to be opened in order to inspect the pig. Oops!!! All too often, it was the cat that was let out of the bag !!
Our modern saying curiosity killed the cat is actually a spin-off of an old saying that really had nothing at all to do with the cat's natural sleuthing abilities! In the 16th century, there was a saying, "care kills a cat". This statement meant that cats seemed to be very cautious, careful and worrisome creatures, and too much anxiety can be bad for one's health, even to the point of sending one to an early grave. A cat, then, could be killed by excessive "care" as indeed could a human. Over the years, the meaning of the word "care" changed, and the word "curiosity" was substituted in the phrase, intending to explain that this was a trait that got both people and cats into trouble sometimes!
Back in a theater of Shakespeare's age, impatient gentlemen of that era made noises that sounded like a fence full of howling cats to register their disapproval of a performance...hence, we have the term catcalls !!
The Roaring '20s ushered in some new phrases relating to cats that are still used and enjoyed today. A cool cat is someone who keeps up with all the latest fads and trends! The cat's meow describes ideas that were truly "too cool for words",! Actually, the phrase the cat's pajamas means the same thing...only no one seems to know quite why!!
Have you heard the phrase a cat's paw ? This is a label for someone who has been taken advantage of and wasn't smart enough to "cat"ch on! Experts say this saying has its origin from an old folk tale in which a clever monkey tricks a not-so-clever cat into reaching into a fireplace to pull out some chestnuts that were roasting there. The monkey got the chestnuts, and the cat got second-degree burns!
Cats certainly are not cowards, but they are definitely smart enough to scamper away (often up the nearest tree) when a larger enemy threatens them. Hence the terms fraidy cat and scaredy-cat !
Some people still believe the myth that tennis rackets and violin strings are made from catgut . Thankfully, this is NOT true! In the German language, the word "kitgut" was used to describe a small fiddle, which led to a confusion through the translation of words and an age-old question.
Someone who is experiencing a bad case of anxiety or nervous agitation is often called a cat on a hot tin roof . This term was firmly planted in our minds when the famous play by the same name was written by playwright Tennessee Williams. The British use the expression cat on hot bricks instead...presumably because they like to be different from Americans!
Nine lives, nine tails. In olden days, a savage tool called the cat o'nine tails was often used to administer a very painful flogging as punishment. Originated in Egypt, it is possible that the original device was made from the hide of cats. Three separate knottings of three strands each were affixed to the whip's handle. It was the mystical number nine again that kept the feline superstitiously and wrongly associated with this murderous practice.
The ancient Egyptians assigned cats and dogs as companions to the gods and goddesses who ruled over climate, and the cat was associated with rain, while dogs were associated with wind. A really heavy storm, which combined lashing strong winds and torrential rain down-pouring, indicated that both cats and dogs had a hand in the storm, i.e., it was raining cats and dogs ! Another possible explanation of this term is that in early 17th century London, cats and dogs often did their mice-hunting on the rooftops of buildings. It certainly does rain a lot in London, and the poor animals were sometimes caught there during a storm, to be washed from the rooftops, over the eaves, and to fall on the top of startled passersby.
Interestingly, when we really like someone, we often call them pussycats . However, we also refer to people as a sourpuss ! Even though cats are very expressive creatures, not many people can honestly say they have seen their cat scowl! In ancient languages, the word "buss" referred to the face, and especially the mouth and lips. Over time, the word changed from "buss" to "puss", and, well, you know!!
We don't understand why cats aren't immortalized for their quiet footsteps and cunning hunting abilities in a more positive way...when we say pussyfooting around , chances are that we are using the expression to describe someone who is acting just plain ol' sneaky!!
There are now more cats owned as pets than dogs in America. And, in the last 10 years, the number of cats we have sharing our homes has DOUBLED!
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