Cat sketch Cat-related phrases and their origin
Original production from CatStuff

Researched and compiled by Glenda Moore
Please do not copy or distribute this article.


Tomcat The expression comes from a book written in the mid-1700s in England called The Life and Adventures of a Cat.  The "hero" of the book, a male cat who enjoyed the favors of many female cats, was named Tom. A male who enjoys the favors of many women.
Cat got your tongue The phrase probably comes from a custom in the Mideast hundreds of years ago, when it was common to punish a thief by cutting off their right hand, and a liar by ripping out their tongue.  These severed body parts were given to the king's pet cats as their daily food.  Why aren't you talking?
The cat's out of the bag In medieval England, piglets were sold in the open marketplace.  The seller usually kept the pig in a bag, so it would be easier for the buyer to take it home.  But shady sellers often tried to trick their buyers by putting a large cat in the bag.  If a shrewd shopper looked in the bag - then the cat was literally out of the bag. To pass along a secret
Catcalls The expression goes back to the theatre of Shakespear's time, when men criticized the acting by making noises that sounded like a fence full of cats. Booing bad acting
Curiosity killed the cat The saying originally was "care kills a cat," and began in the 16th century.  "Care" was a warning that worry is bad for your health and can lead to an early grave; the phrase was a recognition that cats seem to be very cautious and careful. Over time, the word "care" evolved into "curiosity." Be cautious when investigating situations.
Cat's Paw The phrase has its origins from from an old folk tale in which a clever monkey tricks a cat into reaching into a fireplace to pull out some roasting chestnuts.  The monkey got the chestnuts, but the cat got burned. To be labeled a "cat's paw" means someone has taken advantage of you and you weren't smart enough to "cat"ch on.
Cool Cat
Hep Cat
The terms came about in the roaring 20's, and their meaning hasn't changed.  Ideas that were truly too cool for words were described as "the cat's meow" and sometimes as "the cat's pajamas."  (Nobody seems to know why those phrases were created, though.) Someone who keeps up with the latest trends.
Catty remarks The phrase came about when a man named Heywood, in the middle 1500s, began writing down popular phrases of the time.  The already-ancient expression of "nine lives" had been given a new twist that linked women and cats:  "A woman hath nine lives like a cat," he wrote.  Soon, a woman who gossiped about other women was said to be making "catty" remarks about them. Comments made by a woman, usually about another woman
Fraidy cat
The phrase was coined in recognition of a cat's trait of not standing up against a dog many times its size. A person who won't act on a dare
Sourpuss Probably derived from the ancient word "buss" which means "face," esp. the lips.  Over time, the word began to be pronounced as "puss," associating it with the cat. Someone who is cranky
Pussyfooting around This phrase started out as a comment that cats are stealthy and somewhat sneaky when hunting.  Eventually, the phrase evolved to mean a person is sneaky. Being sneaky
It's raining cats and dogs In early Egypt, the cat was considered to be the companion of the god/goddess of rain, while the dog was the companion of the god/goddess of wind. A very heavy storm, therefore, indicated that both cats and dogs were involved.

Another explanation is that the phrase came about in early 17th-century London, when cats hunted mice on the rooftops - during a rainstorm, the cats were washed off the roofs and fell on passersby.

It's raining very hard
Cat sketch
Acting like a cat on a hot tin roof The phrase originated in Tennessee Williams' play of the same name.  As then, it indicates someone who is jumpy - behaving like a cat would if they were on a hot tin roof.  A similar English phrase is "Nimble as a cat on a hot bake-stone," which means in a hurry to get away (a bake-stone was a large stone on which bread was baked). Someone with frayed nerves; jumpy
Catgut The word came about when the German word "kitgut" was translated into other languages. Kitgut was a small fiddle.  The folk tale "cat and the fiddle" probably has something to do with the translation as well. What tennis rackets and violin strings are made of
Cat o'nine tails In olden days, people were flogged by a nasty device made up of three separate knottings of three stands attached to the whip's handle.  The strands may have been made from the hide of cats, the multiple of 9 had already been associated with cats; presumably if a person being flogged survived, they were as lucky as a cat with 9 lives. A whip
Cat-eyed Coined in recognition of a cat's ability to see in very low-light conditions. Able to see in the dark
See which way the cat jumps A cruel sport in the olden days was to place a cat in a tree as a target; the "sportsman" would wait to see which way the cat jumped before pulling the trigger. Wait and see what happens
To live a cat and dog life Phrase was coined by Carlysle, in his book Frederick the Great: “There will be jealousies, and a cat-and-dog life over yonder worse than ever”  To always be arguing
I smell a rat The allusion, according to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, is to a cat smelling a rat. Thinking there is something hidden or concealed
Caterwauling Probably came from Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night: “What a caterwauling do you keep here!”  Making harsh noises or cries
To get one's back up The allusion is to a cat, which sets its back up when attacked by a dog or other animal. Showing anger or annoyance
Playing cat and mouse Origin unknown Playing a game of strategy and stealth
Taking a catnap Origin unknown Sleeping for a short period of time
Looking like a cat that swallowed a canary Origin unknown Displaying a self-satisfied grin
Grinning like a cheshire cat From the Lewis Carroll novel (written in 1865), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Display a silly grin

Cat sketch