• 4-minute read
  • 8th August 2020

8 Feline Phrases for International Cat Day

Today, 8 August, is International Cat Day. Why do cats have an international day? Because they’ve been a big part of human life for centuries! They’ve even had an influence on the English language, so we’ve picked out eight feline phrases to mark the occasion.

1. Cat Got Your Tongue?

Saying ‘Has the cat got your tongue?’ is a light-hearted way to ask why someone is being quiet or not saying much:

You’re very quiet, John. Cat got your tongue?

Some theorise that this comes from the ‘cat o’nine-tails’, a multi-tailed whip once used in the navy (and certainly one way of making someone quiet down). But the ultimate origins of this feline phrase remain a mystery.

2. Not Enough Room to Swing a Cat

We use this phrase to describe a very small or cramped space:

There wasn’t enough room to swing a cat in my hotel room.

The first evidence of this phrase comes from 1665, although it was already in common use. It possibly originated as naval slang – another one that may come from ‘cat o’nine-tails’ – but, again, we don’t know this for sure.

One thing we do know, though, is that real cats don’t like to be swung around, so please don’t try this phrase at home (even if you have the space)!

3. Curiosity Killed the Cat

The proverb ‘curiosity killed the cat’ means that being curious can get you into trouble. People therefore use it as a warning against inquisitive behaviour or to stop someone asking unwanted questions.

A curious cat, hopefully not in mortal danger.
A curious cat, hopefully not in mortal danger.
(Photo: Basile Morin)

An older version of this phrase is ‘care killed the cat’, where ‘care’ means ‘worry’ or ‘sorrow’, suggesting that worrying too much is bad for you. However, the ‘curiosity’ version became more common in the 19th century.

4. Cat Burglar

A ‘cat burglar’ is a thief who is also a skilled, agile climber (like a cat):

The cat burglar entered the building via a second-floor window.

The phrase was first used in 1907 to refer to Arthur Edward Young, a London thief who became known as the ‘cat burglar’ because of his excellent climbing skills, which he used to break into several houses.

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5. Let the Cat Out the Bag

If you ‘let the cat out the bag’, you reveal a secret, usually accidentally:

We planned a surprise party for Laura, but Kate let the cat out the bag.

It’s sometimes (but wrongly) believed that this phrase comes from a scam where farmers would pretend to sell someone a pig in a tied bag, only for the buyer to get home and find a cat inside instead!

6. Put the Cat Among the Pigeons

‘Put the cat among the pigeons’ is a British idiom that means ‘cause trouble, anger or controversy’. For example, we could say:

The teacher put the cat among the pigeons when he told the students they all had to stay behind after school.

Another version of this saying is ‘set the cat among the pigeons’, but the meaning is the same. In either case, it should be obvious where this phrase comes from: if you put a cat among a group of pigeons, there will be a big disturbance as the birds try to escape the feline interloper!

Trouble brewing...
Trouble brewing…

7. Like the Cat That Got the Cream

If someone looks ‘like the cat that got the cream’, they look very satisfied and happy with themselves. For instance:

After winning the game, he grinned like the cat that got the cream.

This simile works well because most cats love dairy (despite many being lactose intolerant). The US-English version of this phrase, meanwhile, is the rather less bird-friendly ‘like the cat who got the canary’.

8. A Leopard Can’t Change Its Spots

We use ‘a leopard can’t change its spots’ to mean that people can’t change their character, even if they try very hard. This originally comes from the Old Testament, where it meant that someone who does evil can’t become good. Now, though, we also use it in non-religious contexts:

She hoped he’d change, but a leopard can’t change its spots!

What’s your favourite feline phrase? Let us know in the comments below! And if you’d like help with any aspect of your writing, why not try our outstanding proofreading services? Give them a go for free today!

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