Category Archives: dog-related phrases

Origins of Cat-Related Phrases


By Julia Williams

As I mentioned in my last article on the origins of dog-related phrases, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of popular sayings that reference our furry four-legged friends. Here are a few of the cat-related phrases and their possible origins.

“The Catbird Seat” means being in a superior or advantageous position. The probable source of this term is a North American songbird named for its ability to mimic the sound of a cat’s meow. Catbirds are known to seek out the highest perches in trees to sing. The first mention of it in print was in James Thurber’s 55 Short Stories from New Yorker, November 1942: “She must be a Dodger fan. Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions… ‘sitting in the catbird seat’ means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.”

“Let the Cat out of the Bag” means to disclose a secret. The most probable origin for this popular cat-related phrase relates to the fraud of substituting cats for piglets at medieval markets. During the Middle Ages, markets were held to sell livestock, produce and other goods. Most of the small livestock was sold alive, usually in a sack so it could be easily carried home. Underhanded merchants sometimes replaced the livestock with a cat, since they were readily available. Unknowing customers would often not realize they’d been swindled until they got home. However, if they opened the bag at the marketplace, they’d “let the cat out of the bag” and foil the merchant’s unscrupulous scheme.

“Cat got your tongue?” This phrase is generally said jokingly to a shy or silent person in an effort to get them to talk, or to find out why they are being so quiet. Like many popular sayings, the origins of this cat-related phrase are murky, but there are plenty of theories. One claims the expression came from the Middle Ages, a time when witches were greatly feared and sightings were reported so the witch could be apprehended. Peasants believed that a witch’s cat could somehow steal or control their tongue so they couldn’t report the sighting. Another theory claims the saying comes from the Middle East, where liars were punished by having their tongues ripped out and fed to the king’s cats. (ewww).

“The Cat’s Meow” means someone or something wonderful or exceptional (as does the phrase “The Cat’s Pajamas”). Thomas A. Dorgan, an American newspaper cartoonist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is credited for coining this cat-related phrase. Mr. Dorgan is also said to have coined another popular slang phrase, “for crying out loud,” which is something that every cat does when their food bowl is empty.

“Curiosity killed the cat” is used to warn people that being too curious can be dangerous. This cat-related phrase evolved from the 16th century saying “care kills a cat” wherein “care” meant worry and/or sorrow. The first recorded use is in English playwright Ben Johnson’s Every Man in His Humour play in 1598: “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.” A frequent reply to “curiosity killed the cat” is “satisfaction brought it back,” but no one seems to know for sure how this came about.

“It’s like herding cats” means that it’s next to impossible. This is a relatively new cat-related phrase, and I wasn’t able to discover its origins. But as all cat owners know, our feline friends rarely do what we want them to do (unless there’s something in it for them – usually food), so it’s not too difficult to see how this saying came about.

I think I need a catnap now. Or maybe some cat snuggle time. Perhaps both! Catch you on the flip side.

Read more articles by Julia Williams

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The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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“The Dog Days of Summer” and Other Pet-Related Phrases


By Julia Williams

You’ve probably heard the phrase “The Dog Days of Summer,” but do you know what it means and where it originated? It got me thinking about some of the other popular dog-related phrases, and I decided to do some research. I discovered there are literally hundreds of phrases with the word “dog” or “cat” in them. Here are just a few that relate to dogs, with theories on their origins collected from various web sites.

“The Dog Days of Summer” refers to the hottest, most sultry days of summer, between July and August. The term was used by the Greeks as well as the ancient Romans who called these days caniculares dies (days of the dogs) after Sirius (the “Dog Star”), which is the brightest star in the heavens besides the sun. During the Dog Days of Summer, Sirius and the sun are said to rise and set at around the same time. Many people believe the phrase is in reference to the noticeable lethargy of domesticated canines on hot days, i.e., being “dog tired.”

“Hush Puppies” are little balls of seasoned, deep-fried dough (usually made with corn meal), served primarily in the South. The most widely accepted origin is that people cooking outdoors would feed a few of these to their dog to keep them quiet while the humans were eating. Whether this occurred at a barbecue or a hunters’ camp depends upon who is telling the story.

“Hair of the Dog” means a small measure of alcohol, intended to cure a hangover. The full version of this phrase is actually “the hair of the dog that bit me,” which gives a clue to its origin. The phrase refers to a medieval belief that when someone was bitten by a rabid dog, a cure could be made by rubbing some of the same dog’s hair into the infected wound. (Um, okay…you first.)

“It’s Raining Cats and Dogs” means that it’s raining heavily. This phrase has no definitive origin, but no shortage of theories. One supposed origin is drawn from mythology. Dogs and wolves were attendants to Odin (the god of storms) and sailors associated them with rain. Witches are said to have flown in the form of cats, but of course there’s no evidence to support this notion.

Another widely repeated theory claims that in early 17th-century London cats and dogs were washed from roofs during heavy rain and fell on passersby. Cats supposedly hunted mice on the rooftops, but what the dogs were doing up there is anybody’s guess. One thing is certain– the phrase doesn’t refer to an actual incident where cats and dogs fell from the sky.

“Sick as a dog” means extremely sick, especially from a stomach malady. Although this is probably the most well-known of all dog-related phrases and dates back to the 17th century, the origin is unknown. It is likely no more than an attempt to give force to the statement of feeling ill, but why “dog” was used rather than another animal is a mystery. Some theorize it was because dogs have a reputation for eating unsavory things, and they often vomit as a result (ewww).

“It’s a Dog’s Life” means a wretchedly unhappy existence; i.e., “life is a dog.” The origins of this phrase are unclear, but the first recorded usage was in the sixteenth century, referring to “a life of misery.” Presumably, it came about because dogs used to work for their food, doing such things as pulling milk carts. But in the under-50 age group, “It’s a Dog’s Life” means that you have it easy, with others catering to your every need. How this got turned around to mean the opposite of the original phrase is a mystery.

I hope you enjoyed this brief look at the origins of dog-related phrases. I would be “in the doghouse” with my three felines if I didn’t give equal space to the origins of cat-related phrases. So, in my next article I will cover some of those, including “Catbird Seat” and “The Cat’s Meow.”

Read more articles by Julia Williams

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.