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Praising a cat to sell a horse

For a long time the etymology of the word bad has been at the center of my attention (four essays bear ample witness to this fact). The latest post ended with a cautious reference to the idea that Middle Engl. bad ~ badde (a noun that occurred only once in 1350 and whose meaning seems to have been “cat”) is, from an etymological point of view, identical with the adjective bad. The context of that single citation justifies the cautious gloss “cat” in the OED, and the Middle Dutch partial look-alike signifying something like “doll; pet child” gives this interpretation a tiny boost. I realize that my conclusion will carry conviction only to those who will agree that bad came into existence as a baby word, like booger and its kin. The sphere of baby words is circumscribed by the experience of a very small child; pets, especially cats, figure prominently in it. The same syllable is often applied to any toy, a doll, a cat, and all adults, for the phonetic possibilities of a one- and even two-year old are limited. Therefore, homonymy rules the young speaker’s usage. The complex b-d, as follows from words like baby and daddy, does occur in the vocabulary of infants. My aim consists in selling this etymology of bad and badde (for the moment, my hobby horse) by praising a few idioms with the word cat, so I am swopping one cat for another, and there is no real dobbin in the bargain.

Idioms with the word cat are often baffling. Perhaps the most famous of them is to rain cats and dogs, which I discussed long ago. Despite some doubts expressed in the comments, I still think that the explanation in the note I cited is plausible. It highlights the problem of dealing with cat: the word may refer not to the animal but to some object called cat, as happened, I believe, with heavy rain. Two phrases among dozens we find in English are particularly curious: not enough room to swing a cat in, and to whip the cat. The first is known very well, while the second is technical, dialectal, and probably obsolete. My sources are dictionaries and the suggestions I found in the old issues of Notes and Queries [NQ].

About swinging a cat I can say little in addition to the fact that the OED quotes a relevant 1665 example. In books on the history of games I was unable to discover any information about holding a cat by the tail and swinging it, but people have often been cruel to animals, and one can imagine the pastime that gave rise to this saying. Still, as a description of narrow space, the expression sounds odd, to say the least. The reference to “the former sport of swinging a cat to the branch of a tree as a target” sounds less than fully convincing, to use diplomatic language, because no evidence turned up to prove that such a sport existed and because trees don’t grow in small rooms. Those authors who mention the game give no references (the usual problem with books on phrases, from Brewer’s classic on) and for that reason should be treated with mistrust. The other hypothesis looks more realistic at first sight. Allegedly, cat is here a cat-o’-nine tails. If this is correct, the idiom must have originated as naval slang. But, as pointed out by everybody who has dealt with the idiom, the word cat-o’-nine-tails was found in English texts later than the phrase in question (which of course says very little about their currency in everyday speech), so that this conjecture looks dubious on chronological grounds. Besides, no etymologies offered so far clarify the allusion to restricted accommodation. I’ll return to swinging a cat below.

Whipping the cat?
Whipping the cat?

By contrast, the literature on whipping the cat is not too sparse, and the OED has a good deal to say about this idiom. At different times, it could mean “to get drunk,” “to lay blame for one’s offence on someone else,” “to work as an itinerant tailor, carpenter, etc. at private houses by the day,” “to play a practical joke…,” and “to practice (practise) extreme parsimony.” No pre-seventeenth-century examples are given. It causes surprise that both picturesque idioms appeared in English so late and approximately at the same time. Joseph Wright in The English Dialect Dictionary gives several examples of the saying under whip and under cat, along with the nouns whipcat and whip-the-cat “an itinerant tailor.”

The most informative note on the subject was written by L. R. M. Strachan, a distinguished philologist, in NQ, vol. 168, 1935: 357 (just in case: Strachan rhymes with drawn). Rather curious is the heading of the article reprinted in NQ (2nd Series/IX, 1860: 325) from a Philadelphia newspaper for June 1793. American correspondent Uneda, a frequent contributor to NQ, didn’t say which newspaper published the report. It dealt with the executions and accusations of treason of the members of the Convent during the bloodiest days of the French revolution. It is titled “Whipping the Cat.” The allusion is, as I think, to one “patriot” laying blame on another.

In Australia, whipping the cat was used to denote a foolish action and competed with flogging pussy, while in the Australian bush it was synonymous with crying over spilt milk. The French idiom il n’y a de quoi à fouetter un chat “never mind it; the whole thing isn’t worth a straw,” literally, “no need to whip a cat” (to which I can add avoir d’autres chats à fouetter “to have other things to do or to worry about [other cats to whip]”) has also been noticed, but despite the presence of the same image and nearly the same intent in both languages, the origin of the expression in English and French does not become clearer. Who whipped the cat and why was it considered a thing of little consequence?

The French idioms do not seem to be old; they are probably even more recent than their English analogs. It has been suggested that French chat “cat” stands for chas “eye of the needle” and that the phrase originated in the language of tailors (should we add: in their international slang?). Tailors loom large in the history of the English saying, but whether chat stands for chas, and, even if it does, how the English and the French phrases interrelate (if at all) remains unclear. The obscene origin of fouetter, allegedly standing for foutre (the French equivalent of our F-word), and especially of the phrase flogging the pussy is not unthinkable but unlikely. Such associations must have occurred to people in retrospect.

This is the protagonist of Gogol's short story "The Overcoat." Cat fur for marten fur was good enough for  him.
This is the protagonist of Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat.” Cat fur for marten fur was good enough for him.

Grose (A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue) cited a story that has been made much of in the discussion of whipping the cat. It is about a sturdy country nincompoop who is told that a cat can pull him across a pond. A wager is laid, the people on the other side pull the rope, whip the cat attached to it, and produce the impression that the unfortunate animal has done the trick. This is a most unlikely source of our idiom. Of all the senses of the phrase to whip the cat the one dealing with itinerant tailors and other journeymen is (or was) by far the best-known. It looks as though in their lingo cat meant something very small (as chat does in French!), and whipping it was tantamount to being engaged in the pettiest business thinkable. In Gogol’s heart-breaking short story “The Overcoat,” an impoverished clerk needs a new overcoat. Saving for it takes a long time, but finally he scrapes together the necessary sum. He and his tailor go shopping for the best cloth and a good collar. Marten fur proves to be too expensive, and they substitute cat fur for it. Is it possible that cat was a habitual replacement for expensive furs?

If cat indeed stood for “a small, insignificant, cheap thing,” it explains the attested reference to parsimony (to whip the cat would be “to save every farthing”). The sense “to cry over spilt milk” belongs here too, at least partly. And we may recall that another exercise in futility is to flog (whip, beat) a willing (dead) horse. Laying blame on others and playing practical jokes were then fanciful extensions of the idiom’s initial meaning. “To get drunk” (the sense supported, among other things, by a sign on a pub discussed by a correspondent to NQ) could have been prompted by someone drinking one glass after another and becoming intoxicated by slow degrees. The similarity between the English and the French idiom remains a puzzle. By contrast, if cat did at one time have the meaning “something very small and insignificant,” no room to swing a cat in stops being absolutely opaque. Here then is my cat. Will it jump?

Image credits: (1) The Tailor of Gloucester at Work. Beatrix Potter, 1902. Public domain via WikiArt. (2) The cover of The Overcoat by Igor Grabar, 1890s. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    So far, “whip the cat” seems to have more than one meaning. Merely as a wild guess for one: a poor tailor might whip (stitch) the cat (pelt). Offered without confidence.

  2. John Cowan

    This business of “swinging a cat to the branch of a tree as a target” immediately reminded me (in a twisted way) of the Khatul Madan. (Excellent joke about it in Russian and English.)

  3. Stehen Goranson

    An earlier use of “to swing a cat in” appears in the 1632 book, The lavves resolutions of womens rights…(London) book II, Sect. LXI. Of what things Dower is not granted….p. 100: A cottage of clay and splints set close in a corner of a cold Common, which is but a rewmaticke Lodge to welcome Suitors to. But how if the Common and all things bee so inclosed that there is not roome to swing a Cat in, women are not put in Rogum with their Husbands any where but in the Indies, and I thinke that custome is left there also by this time….

  4. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Strangely enough Latvian kaķis (cat) is being explained to origin from *katis. Usually this ending -ķis appears where in other languages there is ck, ch, kk as in āķis, stiķis, niķis, spieķis. Piķis for pitch and kruķis for crutch show correspondance with English catch. There is also zaķis for hare. Latgalian makes this sound ķi=č=ch kačs, začs. Who knows where this cat was wandering

  5. Olivier van Renswoude

    With regard to whipping the cat and the meaning ‘to work as an itinerant tailor, carpenter, etc.’, I’m reminded of how Low German beunhoas ‘cat’ (literally ‘loft-hare’) was borrowed into Dutch as beunhaas, where it came to mean ‘craftsman who does not belong to a guild’ and eventually ‘moonlighter’ and ‘bungler’. Presumably the semantic bridge is ‘person who silently works in a loft’. Similar Low German words for ‘cat’ are dakhoas ‘roof-hare’ and balkhoas ‘beam-hare’, all referring to the climbing habits of cats.

    As for not enough room to swing a cat in, I wonder whether it didn’t arise as a joking variant of something like not enough room to fit a cat in. Cats are master creepers in small spaces, after all, and people like to vary their expressions. But I reckon such an original form has yet to be found. Still, compare Dutch kattegat, which originally meant ‘hole through which (only) a cat can crawl’ and thereafter ‘narrow waters’ and ‘dangerous waters’, and was ultimately used by Dutch sailors for the shallow sea between Sweden and Denmark.

  6. William Berry

    Yes, but what is the meaning of “praising a cat to sell a horse.”

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