Letting The Cat Out Of The Oven

We the English speakers of the world have an unprecedented love for playing with our language.  The reasons why are somewhat unclear, yet we delight in in-jokes and perhaps even enjoy confusing visitors from foreign shores.  The most puzzling fact is that in general, we like to promote our respective nations as liberal places of acceptance and kindness yet linguistically we like to make peculiar comments about cats.

What I am referring to are idioms relating to cats, some are borderline cases of promoting animal abuse, others are just bizarre.  What is an indisputable fact is that idioms differ widely in different languages so in many cases when you use an idiom in conversation with someone from a different nation they may not understand, which leaves you with two choices.  Either you explain the right meaning or…

What’s the matter has the cat got your tongue?  Quite possibly the stupidest of all feline related idioms used when the speaker wishes to highlight the other person’s silence.  Now if the cat had actually got my tongue I would, in all honesty, be rolling around on the floor screaming as the cat hisses and rips tiny morsels of flesh from my tongue with its razor-like claws.

Well, that let the cat out of the bag!  In this case, we are highlighting the fact that someone has publicised a secret.  Now I don’t know if any of my readers have ever put a cat in a bag, however, if any of you have, you will have noted that the cat tends to panic, and makes quite a lot of noise.  So much noise that they are almost impossible to keep secret, especially when you are travelling on the number 12 bus to the river in the early afternoon.

There’s not enough room to swing a cat.  Often we use this in a mock-ironic manner.  As in most cases, there is actually enough room to swing a cat.  I can recall trying to explain to a Bulgarian friend that ‘swinging a cat’ is a traditional British room measurement.  Sometimes I wonder if it perhaps took off in Bulgarian real estate.

There are many ways to skin a cat.  Of course referring to the numerous methods of completing a task, not a fact of science.  It’s clearly disputable.  There are many utensils you can use however there surely aren’t a wide variety of methods.  I remember one student asking me ‘But Scott, why would you want to skin a cat?’  The only correct answer was that British shamans have to look at cats entrails and not chickens entrails to see the future.

I doubt this post will put the cat amongst the pigeons, nor should it as that is blatantly cruel, nor should it encourage people to fight like cat and dog, nor should it encourage curiosity, as we all know it was curiosity that killed the cat and not us putting it in a bag, swinging it or skinning it.

3 thoughts on “Letting The Cat Out Of The Oven

  1. There are idioms related to cats also in Polish language. At first, “to buy a cat in a bag” (kupić kota w worku), there is an equivalent english idiom “to buy a pig in a poke”. And another one (very hard to translate): “to invert a cat with tail forward” (odwrócić kota ogonem) :)))


  2. “to buy a cat in a bag” makes me think of the people who stand by the stairs in the Metro selling kittens and puppies on blankets. I find it interesting that most countries use cat in a bag rather that pig in a poke. You can find a list of different translations of that idiom on Wikipedia here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pig_in_a_poke

    However I have no idea about the second idiom. What on earth does “to invert a cat with tail forward” mean?


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