Variations of common cat sayings have existed in some form of English for hundreds of years, but how, exactly, and when, did these phrases make their way into modern, everyday vernacular?
Cats were domesticated thousands of years ago, and their coexistence has ranged from employee (keeping rodents out of homes and barns) to beloved house pet. Most cat idioms are rooted in relatively modern history, going back mere hundreds of years instead of thousands. And some, such as a cat having nine lives or believing that if a black cat crosses your path, it's bad luck, are more folklore myths than cat phrases.
Kitties of all sizes and temperaments have eased their way into daily life, thus working their way into our conversations, too! Here are six common cat sayings.
1. Cat Got Your Tongue?
Perhaps the most popular cat saying, this should not be taken literally! It refers to someone who isn't talking, particularly if they don't respond to a question. This idiom possibly dates to ancient Egypt, where punishment for a crime meant your tongue would be cut out and fed to a cat, and the Middle Ages, when a witch's cat would steal or paralyze your tongue so that you couldn't speak. Neither option is appealing, yet this phrase shows no signs of slowing down!
2. Curiosity Killed the Cat
It's common knowledge that kitties are curious creatures. This instinctive but somewhat hazardous behavior can get the best of them if they aren't careful, and therein lies the root of this cat saying. Don't ask too many questions, or you'll regret what you discover. Renaissance playwrights, including Shakespeare, used this phrase at the end of the sixteenth century, albeit in the form of "care killed the cat," as it also appears in Brewer's 1898 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, according to Bartleby.
3. While the Cat's Away, the Mice Will Play
In other words, when the boss is gone, it's party time! Historically, cats, who still retain their strong hunting instinct to this day, keep mice out of home and hearth. Dictionary.com reports that this phrase originated around 1600, although cats were used as mousers a few hundred years earlier.
4. Like the Cat that Ate the Canary
If you've ever had the satisfaction of completing a challenging task or winning a terrific prize, then chances are you've had this look on your face! Cats are stealth hunters, as noted above, and "getting the canary" is the feline equivalent to getting a big raise or award. Conversely, this phrase also can mean you're guilty of acquiring something that isn't yours. "The cat that got the cream," one of several common cat sayings in England, essentially means the same thing.
5. Let the Cat Out of the Bag
Another popular cat phrase, this refers to revealing a secret without intending to — whoops. Because kitties loves to hide in small spaces, you'll find a cat in a bag fairly often, but the origin of this phrase is fuzzy. Popular folklore has it that it may refer to being whipped by the cat-o'-nine-tails if you got out of line while a member of the British Royal Navy. Or, it harks back to the days of livestock trade on the streets of England during the Renaissance. A hawker would sell you a pig concealed in a bag, but it turned out to be a cat. Snopes even got into the game, dispelling these myths and offering no clear-cut etymology or origin for the phrase. One thing that's true? This phrase remains a favorite to this day!
6. Fraidy- or Scaredy-Cat
Pet parents know cats can be skittish, a trait that establishes the foundation for this idiom used to describe someone who's timid or frightened, used more frequently during childhood than adulthood. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that by 1871, this term was used as American English slang to denote a coward.
Cats have obviously played a large role in the world's history, and thus found their way into a number of common idioms throughout history, so much so that you probably never even thought about what you were saying or where it originated. But now, the next time you hear someone using one of these phrases, you can wow them with the breadth of your knowledge of common cat sayings history. They might even think you're the cat's pajamas!
Christine O'Brien is a writer, mom, and long-time cat parent whose two Russian Blues rule the house. Her work also appears in Care.com, What to Expect, and Fit Pregnancy, where she writes about pets, pregnancy, and family life. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien.