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.

Pigeon-Hole Yourself

Language has its limitations.  We expose them on a daily basis and we don’t actually realise it.  Yesterday I finished drafting a synopsis for my novel.  I actually wrote a few different versions varying in length and style.  I actually found it very difficult.  First actually selecting 450 words to describe 80,000 was tough enough.  Second and even harder was choosing exactly how to pigeon-hole my novel.  It is a work of literary fiction.  Well it’s certainly not commercial.  But then how would I know.  If by some miracle my novel was a hit then surely it becomes commercial.  Is it a thriller?  Well it contains some typically thriller like elements?  Is it a comic novel?  Well I never set out to deliberately write jokes but it does have some funny moments.  Is it a satire?  Well it says a lot about the world we live in without being obnoxiously satirical.  So what is it then?

This question, which we value so greatly is meaningless.  Our armoury of weapons we have to describe something consists of adjectives and adverbs which are incapable of telling the entire truth.  Pick three words to describe yourself.  I choose intelligent, funny and moody.  Now ask yourself am I always those three things.  Are those three things a constant about me?  In my case no.  I am sometimes all three.  Never always.  So then ask yourself for one word which describes your character.  One word which is always fitting.  I bet you can’t do it.  And we do this all the time.  In job interviews you often get questions like describe your greatest weakness or strength?  Or a number of seemingly innocuous questions which convince your brain that you need to answer using adjectives which describe your character.  ‘So tell me Mr Scott what can you bring to the position of chief burger flipper at MacDonald’s?’  ‘Well I am dedicated, driven, punctual and have a great team ethic.’   When your brain switches on you realise that what you said doesn’t actually have any sense to it whatsoever and for some reason the person interviewing you is grinning like a rather contented cat.

We don’t only do it professionally.  On a personal level we are always swapping descriptions about people.  It’s as if a human being cannot make their own assumptions about stories which describe someones character.  It’s as if we have to fill in the gaps for each other.  ‘Scott did the craziest thing the other day, but then you know what he is like,  a bit nutty you know.’  In that imaginary sentence there is barely a single piece of information offered to the listener to help them make their own mind up.  It’s our way of ensuring or making sure that the listener is of the same opinion as us.  When you are the listener in that situation automatically you find yourself nodding encouragement or mumbling an ‘ah-ha’ or ‘go on’ to the speaker in order to hurry them along.  However the speaker assumes that your encouragement is actually a validation of the point they were making.  It’s a bizarre habit, a ritual almost which we all participate it at some point.  The weirdest of these situations is when you observe women talking about a new man.  Whether it is after the first date and a friend asks ‘so what is he like?’ which is clearly a stupid question when she is only starting to get know him, or when the speaker looks for validation by adding the words ‘you know what men or like.’  when what she actually wants to say is ‘Help me please my friends.  Is it normal for a man to wipe it on the curtains afterwards?’ .

In one exercise I used to write my synopsis it asked me to try to write a moral which is applicable to the story.  I found this task remarkably difficult as I hope my novel is multi-faceted and I believe it contains more than one.  In the end I tried to choose one which seemed applicable to the ending.  Which seems doubly fitting.  The moral is about how your own judgment is what makes a good deed a good deed and not the action in itself.  However as I have discussed here judgment is blinkered by language, it is often as precise as a nuclear bomb.  And this is why a pigeon-hole is rarely a comfortable home for mice, men and novels.  A much more honest question is to who do you aspire to be or to what do you aspire?  As a person I strive to be good, honest and warm.  As a writer I aspire to be interesting, inspiring and intelligent.