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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: The Animal Kingdom, Part 3 - Catastrophic Terminology

Are you a cat lover? If so, this article will be just what the veterinarian, er, doctor, ordered. So many phrases derive from feline terms that it is truly amazing. Learn where "kitty-corner" came from, why people revealing a secret are said to "let the cat out of the bag," the reason we "feed the kitty" with our spare change, where Lewis Carrol came up with "Cheshire cat," and more.


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The last couple of Lexicon articles dealt with our canine friends. These next articles will focus on the other common household pet: the cat. First things first, however: the word "catastrophic" (and its relative "catastrophe") is totally unrelated to our feline friends (Steinmetz, pp. 37-38), so will not be discussed here.

Did your ancestors have cats? If they were farmers, the chances are very good that they did, though they probably didn't get the kind of treatment that the urban domestic tabby did: cats on the farms had to work for their food! In a way, they lived a dog's life (see previous articles)! Unless, of course, your ancestors were Egyptian, in which case their cats were revered (Morris, p. 172). So there it is: cats have been part of cultures going back to the earliest known times, and they have been everything from servants to idols. No wonder a host of phrases connect to kitty.

We lived on a corner when I grew up. Whenever referring to the location that was diagonally across from our home, my mother would say it was "kitty-corner" ("the bus will let you off kitty-corner to the house"). I always found that a strange term so let's look at it first. Also pronounced/spelled "catty-corner," "catta-corner," and "catercorner," it is presumed that this term has its origin in the French word for "four" - quatre - which was altered to cater in early English (Holt, p. 154). However, another speculation is that the origin is ketje or kejtet (Danish for "left hand" and "clumsy," respectively). This theory is based on the concept that the diagonal is not straight (and from the old superstition that left-handers are not "right" and are "clumsy"). Yet others claim that the phrase gets its name from the way a cat walks - instead of straight ahead, it wanders on the diagonal. This is, of course, ridiculous as cats prowl more in line with whatever they are chasing and are prone to hop all over (like a cat on a hot tin roof, perhaps?) (Liberman, p. 45). Some believe that this term evolved into "cattywampus" (as in "askew"), more like a cat would really walk (Morris & Morris, p. 117).

At our genealogical society, we have a box that we encourage people to "feed" with their "spare change" (a rare commodity these days). This term, "feeding the kitty," is familiar to gamblers in a poker game where they are expected to "ante up" and "feed" or "fatten" the "kitty." Hoyle, the game expert, says that the "kitty" is where the expenses for the evening are kept and, before the winnings can be removed, the house "takes" its share (the kitty . . . and the whole kit and caboodle of it . . . oops, that's a term from another arena, not a feline one). Funk believes that this term may have originated with the game of Faro, which pre-dates today's poker (Funk, Heavens, p. 135). In its earliest renditions, Faro was called "Tiger" and that was the image that graced the Chinese gambling establishments (Hog, p. 82).

Let us move along to the grown feline, our friend the cat. So many phrases rely on this creature to carry the message; we cannot cover them all, but let's look at some that have persisted in common conversation (well, that is dependent on where you converse, of course). I live in Southern California where the movie industry is part of the culture. Anyone who has watched filming has no doubt noticed that, around the perimeter of the set is a walkway that allows the crew to get aerial camera shots, as well as perform other duties away from the view of the lens. But we also find catwalks around railroad cars, on the outside (Glazier, p. 214), and on the outsides of buildings - scaffolding - for the use of builders or others needing access to the exterior of the structure (p. 156). Why "catwalk"? We would not expect to find cats in any of those places, or desired in those locations, either (after all, if you are attempting to navigate along such a ledge, encountering a cat in the same space would not be likely to give you a sense of security, or even the "aha! Now I know where this three-foot wide shelf got its name!"). But cats are amazingly agile and able to navigate skinny ledges at high altitudes. Perhaps when the first use of this word arose (in the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time in 1885), it was because someone said, "I'm not going up on that ledge - only a cat could maneuver up there!" Or words to that effect (Morris, Of course, the term has become more common-place in the modeling industry in reference to the narrow ramp that extends into the audience from the stage area (

No doubt, anyone who is walking on these precarious structures must be vary careful; perhaps even to the extent of "pussyfooting." While the term is a direct descendant of the feline's literal walking behavior, the word is often applied in more figurative terms. We "pussyfoot" around a topic that may be sensitive. The appearance of one being evasive or even deceptive when "pussyfooting" gives the term a negative connotation as someone who approaches topics in this manner may seem timid and unsure of him/herself (Morris, The Word Detective, p. 173). Obviously, whoever coined this word initially did not take into account my husband's cat "Tong," whose very name describes his demeanor. (I don't think he ever "pussyfooted" a day in his life.)

My grandmother was allergic to both cats and dogs. Our household pets were lizards, alligators (yes, you read that right), turtles, fish, and then (as long as they stayed in cages) white mice, hamsters, and even a white rat named Simon. But no cats. And I really wanted one. The closest I got, as a kid, was a "cat's cradle" - the string concoction that was, to my little mind, where a cat could nestle . . . if I had a cat. Now, I have never seen a cat in that string figure made by weaving the string through the fingers until a little scoop-shaped hammock is formed, but I have a good imagination. Not good enough to conjure up what the actual meaning of the term is, however. Apparently the original name was cratch-cradle, after the hayrack in which fodder for the cattle was kept (cratch being medieval English for "hayrack"). Some have extended this idea to the manger where the Christ Child slept - crèche - and say that the term comes from that origin (crèche and cratch being word cousins), but not all wordsmiths are convinced of that stretch. The belief that the cratch was eventually slurred into "cat's" is fairly universal; a hayrack was soon not a common sight, especially for those in urban areas, so cratch-cradle made no sense (but cat's cradle did?) (Hendrickson, p. 134). Whatever the case, I wouldn't recommend trying to place a cat into that string contraption, especially if the cat is the aforementioned Tong.

On the subject of tying up a cat (or putting one into a hammock of string), let us tackle the phrase "let the cat out of the bag." Now, personally, having, in my adult life, been owned by five cats (not all at once), I would not attempt to put a cat into a bag in the first place (it would not be an easy feat, I am certain); but once a cat is in a bag, letting it out might be a good idea. Well, perhaps not so if it is the figurative "cat" referred to here. We often hear (and use) the phrase "let the cat out of the bag" when talking about revealing something that was secret. And the person who does such a thing is not usually respected. But why would a cat be in the bag in the first place? This traces back to another phrase, perhaps more common with grandma than it is for generation X: "a pig in a poke" (as in, "don't buy a . . ."). A "poke," of course, is a sack (often made of a burlap material); when taking a pig to market, farmers would often stuff the squealing creature into a gunnysack and transport it for sale. Now, sometimes a farmer, who knows the value of a cat is less than that of a pig, might attempt to "pull the wool over someone's eyes" (a phrase discussed some time ago) by putting a cat (or, more likely, a kitten - not as loud, you know) into the sack before heading off to market. The unknowing (and unwise) purchaser would then be duped into purchasing this creature in a sack, thinking he was buying a pig, only to discover, when he got home to put the animal into a pen, that he had been ripped off. However, if the buyer was savvy, he would not buy the "pig in a poke," but would open it up on the spot to check his prospective purchase, thereby "letting the cat out of the bag" (Funk, Hog, p. 138). My guess is that said cat would then head for the hills leaving both buyer and seller not very happy.

But the escaped cat would likely be very pleased with the outcome (not that it knew what was happening in the first place). Why, I dare say that, if it could, it would "grin like a Cheshire cat." Of course most of us, hearing that phrase, immediately picture the Cheshire cat in Disney's cartoon version of Lewis Carrol's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but the term was merely borrowed by Carrol, probably from the British writer John Wolcot (pseudonym: Peter Pindar), satirist from 1782 to 1819. And he probably borrowed it from earlier usage. There are many speculations on this; one is that Cheshire was a county that had regal privileges (extending on down to the felines), causing everyone pleasure, including Tabby. The crest of Cheshire was commissioned and painted with a lion that, since the sign painter was not clear of how a lion actually looked, appeared more like a grinning cat than a ferocious beast (Funk, Hog, pp. 126-127). Another theory, and perhaps more believable, is that the cheeses manufactured in Cheshire were once formed in the shape of a cat with a smile on its face. And there is a third supposition that traces the Cheshire cat to a forest warden named Caterling (shortened, allegedly, to "Cat"). Whenever he caught poachers, it is said that he would "grin from ear to ear" at the hanging, making him the "Cheshire Cat." Not too much stock is given to this third option, however (Hendrickson, p. 303).

So, did your ancestors have cats? Or did they, perhaps, suffer from ailourophobia (fear of cats) (Crystal, p. 127)? Either way, cats have been part of civilization for all of recorded history. As you venture forth in your genealogical research, visiting libraries (ours is kitty-corner from a shopping center), don't proceed in a cattywampus style. Be focused, carefully maneuvering along the record catwalk. And don't pussyfoot around when it comes to asking for what you want! Let the cat out of the bag and tell the librarian what you are searching for. Surely, when you find it, you will grin like a Cheshire cat. Oh yes, and don't forget to feed the kitty on your way out - these libraries need money to keep going.


Crystal, David (Ed.). The Cambridge Factfinder. New York: The Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993. "Catwalk." Accessed 2 March 2012, from .

Funk, Charles Earle. Heavens to Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings. New York: Harper & Row, 1955, 1983.

Funk, Charles Earle. Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1948.

Glazier, Stephen. Random House Webster's Word Menu. New York: Random House, 1992.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & Expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 1997, 2000.

Holt, Alfred H. Phrase and Word Origins: A Study of Familiar Expressions, Rev. Ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1961.

Liberman, Anatoly. Word Origins . . . and How We Know Them. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005.

Morris, Evan. The Word Detective: Solving the Mysteries behind Those Pesky Words and Phrases. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000.

Morris, Evan. "Meowww." The Word Detective, on-line, April 27, 2002. Accessed 2 March 2012, from .

Morris, William, & Mary Morris. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Steinmetz, Sol. Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning. New York: Random House Reference, 2008.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2012.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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