A cat has nine lives. A cat is more tenacious of life than
other animals, because it generally lights upon its feet without
injury, the foot and toes being padded so as to break the fall. (See
“Tub What wouldst thou have with me?”
“Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives.”
Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, iii. l.
All cats love fish.
(See previous column, Cat I' The Adage.)
Before the cat can lick her ear—i.e.
before the Greek kalends. Never. No cat can lick her ear. (See
Care killed the cat. (See page 216, 2, Care.)
In the dark all cats are gray.
All persons are undistinguished till they have made a name. Not
room to swing a cat. Swinging cats as a mark for sportsmen was at
one time a favourite amusement. There were several varieties of this
diversion. Sometimes two cats were swung by their tails over a rope.
Sometimes a cat was swung to the bough of a tree in a bag or sack.
Sometimes it was enclosed in a leather bottle.
Sick as a cat.
Cats are very subject to vomiting. Hence the vomit of a drunkard is
called “a cat,” and the act of discarding it is called “shooting the
Let the cat out of the bag.
To disclose a secret. It was formerly a trick among country folk to
substitute a cat for a sucking-pig, and bring it in a bag to market.
If any greenhorn chose to buy a “pig in a poke” without examination,
all very well; but if he opened the sack, “he let the cat out of the
bag,” and the trick was disclosed.
“She let the cat out of her bag of verse ... she almost proposed to
her hero in rhyme.” George Meredith: The Egotist, iii.
To bell the cat.
(See page 119, Bell.)
To turn cat-in-pan.
To turn traitor, to be a turncoat. The phrase seems to be the
French tourner cote en peine (to turn sides in trouble). I do
not think it refers to turning pancakes.
When George in pudding-time came o'er
And moderate men looked big, sir.
I turned a cat-in-pan once more.
And so became a Whig, sir.
Vicar of Bray.
Bacon says, “There is a cunning which we in England call the turning
of the cat in the pan; which is, when that which a man says to
another, he says it as if another had said it to him.”
Touch not a cat but a glove.
Here “but” is used in its original meaning of “beout,” i.e.
without. (For another example of “but” meaning without, see Amos
iii. 7.) The words are the motto of Mackintosh, whose crest is
“cat-a-mountain salient guardant proper”; supporters, two
cats proper. The whole is a pun on the word Catti, the Teutonic
settlers of Caithness, i.e. Catti-ness, and mean, “Touch not
the clan Cattan or Mountain Cat without a glaive.” The same words are
the adopted motto of Grant of Ballindalloch, and are explained by the
second motto, ensë et animo.
In French: On ne prend pas tel chat sans moufles.
What can you have of a cat but her skin?
The thing is useless for any purpose but one. In former times the
cat's fur was used for trimming cloaks and coats, but the flesh is
Who ate the cat?
A gentleman who had his larder frequently assailed by bargees, had
a cat cooked and placed there as a decoy. It was taken like the other
foods, and became a standing jest against these larder pilferers.
A Cheshire cat. He grins like a Cheshire cat.
Cheese was formerly sold in Cheshire moulded like a cat. The
allusion is to the grinning cheese-cat, but is applied to persons who
show their teeth and gums when they laugh. (See Alice in Wonderland.
A Kilkenny cat.
The story is that, during the rebellion of Ireland, Kilkenny was
garrisoned by a troop of Hessian soldiers, who amused themselves in
barracks by tying two cats together by their tails and throwing them
across a clothes-line to fight. The officers, hearing of this,
resolved to put a stop to the practice. The look-out man, enjoying the
sport, did not observe the officer on duty approaching the barracks;
but one of the troopers, more quick-sighted, seizing a sword, cut the
two tails, and the cats made their escape. When the officer inquired
the meaning of the two bleeding tails, he was coolly told that two cats
had been fighting and had devoured each other all but the tails.
Whatever the true story, it is certain that the municipalities of
Kilkenny and Irishtown contended so stoutly
about their respective boundaries and rights to the end of the
seventeenth century, that they mutually impoverished each other,
leaving little else than “two tails” behind.
A cat is a ship formed on the Norwegian model, having a narrow
stern, projecting quarters, and deep waist. It is strongly built, and
used in the coal trade. Harrison speaks of it as a “cat” or
“catch.” According to tradition, Sir Richard Whittington made his
money by trading in coals, which he conveyed in his “cat” from
Newcastle to London. The black faces of his coal-heavers gave rise to
the tale about the Moors. In confirmation of this suggestion, it may be
added that Whittington was Lord Mayor in 1397, and coal was first made
an article of trade from Newcastle to London in 1381.
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894