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The Meaning of Popular Cat Clichés and Sayings

Updated on July 20, 2017
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Sadie is a cat lover, freelance writer, and researcher with a degree in English Literature and a background in business communications.

Learn more about the meaning and origin of popular cat clichés, expressions and sayings. Take the quiz at the end of the article to uncover more fancy feline phrases!

Are you 'kitten' me? What did you just say?

Curiosity killed the cat. This morbid-sounding cat expression is often used as a warning about the dangers of poking around in other people's business or getting involved in things that don't concern you. Perhaps we use this phrase because cats are naturally inquisitive and like to roam freely without concern for traditional boundaries. They often end up trespassing where they're not wanted.

Where is this curious cat going? He could be looking for trouble if he's not careful!
Where is this curious cat going? He could be looking for trouble if he's not careful!

Let the cat out of the bag. When someone has 'let the cat out of the bag,' they've revealed a secret, uncovered a deceit or exposed something that was hidden. The origin of this expression comes from a time when farmers would bring a suckling pig to market in a bag. Sometimes a cat would be put in the bag instead to try and cheat the buyer out of his money. If the buyer bought the squirming, wriggling bag without looking inside first, he would be ripped off. If the buyer looked in the bag before before handing over is cash, then the cat would be 'let out of the bag' and the farmer's lie would be exposed.

Take a cat nap. A cat nap is a short, light, opportunistic snooze that is taken when you're quite busy but you really need to recharge your batteries. Cat naps are light and refreshing; they don't leave you feeling sluggish or groggy when you wake up. Some people also refer to cat naps as power naps, but a power nap can usually be taken day or night (such as in the middle of a late-night study session). A cat nap, on the other hand, is taken during the day. So what does a cat have to do with a cat nap? Cats often sleep lightly during the day, sometimes seated upright (as in the photo below). They're quite alert during these cat naps and if you watch carefully, you can see a napping cat's ears move in the direction of various sounds, even when they appear to be asleep.

Even though this cat looks like it's sleeping, notice how the ears are turned in different directions. When a cat naps, they are still very much aware of their surroundings.
Even though this cat looks like it's sleeping, notice how the ears are turned in different directions. When a cat naps, they are still very much aware of their surroundings.

Has the cat got your tongue? When someone, often a child, is rendered speechless because they've been caught in a fib or they're too shy to speak, someone might say to them, "Has the cat got your tongue?" There's no particular reason that the phrase includes 'the cat' other than that the saying was often directed towards children. Asking a shy child, "Has the cat got your tongue?" may coax a smile out of a nervous youngster while a stern "Speak up, child!" would have the opposite effect.

It's raining cats and dogs! When someone looks out the window and exclaims "It's raining cats and dogs!" you better get your boots and umbrella out. The rain is coming down hard and heavy.

The expression is believed to be related to Norse mythology--the cat symbolizes heavy rain while the dog, a companion of Odin, the storm God, represents blasting wind. Whether or not you know Norse mythology, the expression makes sense in light of the tumultuous relationships cats and dogs often have.

Many, but not all, cats and dogs have story relationships, which helps to explain the saying  'raining cats and dogs'.
Many, but not all, cats and dogs have story relationships, which helps to explain the saying 'raining cats and dogs'.

Can you identify some of these common 'cat-ch" phrases?


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Sources:

Almond, Jordan. Dictionary of Word Origins: A History of the Words, Expressions, and ClicheÌs We Use. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Pub. Group, 1998. Print.

Moore, Glenda. Cat-ch Phrases: Cat-related idioms, their meanings and histories



© 2017 Sadie Holloway

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  • Room of My Own profile image
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    Sadie Holloway 3 weeks ago

    Thanks, ronbergeron! That explanation of 'cat out of the bag' makes sense! Thanks for sharing it. I love how old phrases can be so enigmatic. It's hard to tell what the true origin of certain cliches and it's fun hearing about the many different iterations of phrases. Thanks for stopping by and commenting with your insights into a popular cat saying.

  • ronbergeron profile image

    Ron Bergeron 3 weeks ago from Massachusetts, US

    "Let the cat out of the bag" is usually described as a nautical term. The "cat" in this case was the "cat o'nine tails", which was a type of whip used when disciplining sailors back in the days of wooden sailing ships. It was stored in a bag to protect it from drying out. When the cat was let out of the bag, discipline was about to be dispensed.

    Your description of letting the cat out of the bag sounds to me more like "buying a pig in a poke".

    As with most old phrases like this, it's hard to really know the exact origin.

  • Room of My Own profile image
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    Sadie Holloway 3 weeks ago

    Both the phrase 'the cat's meow' and 'the cat's pajamas' were commonly used by young people in the 1920's, often interchangeably, to describe things that are cool. hip, trendy and stylish. Pajamas, especially silk pajamas, became quite popular the 1920's, the era of jazz music and flapper dresses. Back then, the word 'cat' was slang for young people (think modern-day hipsters and millenials) and that's why we use the phrase 'the cat's pajamas' to describe something that is cool, stylish and highly desirable. I'm not sure how 'the cat's meow' became synonymous with cool and trendy other than the link between the word 'cats' and young people. Perhaps when one of these cool cats expressed an interest in something new and exciting and 'meowed' about it, that's where the phrase's 'the cat's meow' comes from.

    I love hearing stories about the meaning of words and phrases so I welcome readers to chime in with what they know about any other cat-ch phrases they like to use.

  • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

    Greensleeves Hubs 4 weeks ago from Essex, UK

    Always interesting to learn the origins of words and phrases Sadie, and so often the origin has very little in common with the modern usage of the word or phrase. Some of those examples you give are almost self-explanatory, whilst others are derived from cultures or folklore dating far into the past.

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    S Maree 4 weeks ago from North/Central Indiana

    What fun! Aced it 1st time! LOVE KITTIES! Can you tell me how "the cat's meow" came about? When we heard bad piano playing we'd say "sounds like a kitten on the keyboard!". Anyone else use this phrase?

    No "catcalls" for you! More! More!