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Cat idioms and expressions

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When Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, it was perhaps with the intention of enhancing international communication, and making the workplace more efficient – useful things of that nature. What he perhaps did not expect is what seems to be the web’s primary use: sharing photos of disgruntled cats. Wherever you turn your head, you can see a tabby in a party hat or a Siamese cat ‘playing chess like it thinks it’s people’.

While nobody can predict the awful revenge which cats will one day unleash upon humans for these indignities, what we can do is jump on that bandwagon. But with, of course, a linguistic turn. Horses and pigs were only stepping stones on the way to my very favourite animal, and one which languages across the globe have turned to for idiomatic favour: the humble (or not so humble) cat. Let’s have a look at some of these idioms, pleasant and unpleasant:

Cat idioms and expressions in English

Curiosity killed the cat

As the conclusion on a coroner’s report, this might be less than convincing – curiosity would have had to wipe out all nine lives of a cat, for starters – but idiomatically, it is of more use. The expression is a warning that being too inquisitive is likely to get you into trouble. It should also be heeded by any cats wandering around Mars.

No room to swing a cat

When I’m organizing my living arrangements, my primary concerns run along the lines of “Are there enough cupboards in the kitchen?” or “Is there room for fourteen bookcases?” Swinging cats seems to be me a singularly profitless use of time, but (it turns out) this expression – which simply denotes a confined space – refers to cat in the sense of cat-o’-nine-tails – that is, a whip once commonly used by sailors.

Has the cat got your tongue?

This idiomatic question – posed to someone remaining silent when they should be speaking – is one of those which, if you think about it, is rather more unpleasant than you might imagine. Also in this category: ‘touched a raw nerve’ and ‘keep your eyes peeled’. Sorry for making you wince.

Like a cat on a hot tin roof

A wonderfully evocative image, this simile is used to express agitation or anxiety. In British-English, a variant is like a cat on hot bricks. It also, of course, gave rise to the Pulitzer-prizewinning Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).

[Put the] cat among the pigeons

As well as being the title of an Agatha Christie novel, this British-English idiom is used to describe saying or doing something controversial – indeed, something (to continue the ornithological trope) that is likely to ruffle feathers. Having spent time in pigeon-filled parks, I don’t fancy the chances of the average moggy against a flock of pigeons. Most of the felines of my acquaintance would far rather have a gentle nap than rage against the flying of the birds.

And in other languages…

Here are just a couple of examples from other languages, since you can read many more examples from French, Italian, German, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese in an earlier post on OxfordWords.

Il gatto scottato teme l’acqua fredda

English-speakers don’t specify which species is under discussion when using the idiom once bitten, twice shy – being bitten by a flea might, one notes, have somewhat different after-effects than being bitten by a rhino – but Italian-speakers would say Il gatto scottato teme l’acqua fredda; that is, ‘the scalded cat fears cold water’.

J’ai d’autres chats à fouetter

Here’s an example of English offering a much more cat-friendly version of a phrase than the French. While English-speakers will refer to having other fish to fry (and you can imagine a cat’s mouth watering at the prospect), in the French language, people have autres chats à fouetter – ‘other cats to whip’.

Which isn’t a particularly pleasant image to end on (even without approaching a cat in hell’s chance or more than one way to skin a cat).  So I suggest, as a restorative, you scroll back up to the top of the page and look again at that pretty little kitty. Awwww. Or, of course, head straight onto our competition…

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