Issue 128, page 1
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UPDATED JANUARY 2006
It rained today. We realize that our British readers can say this almost every day of the year but we're in California. And it's June. If this isn't a sure sign of global warming we don't know what is. Buy a house in the hills now - it'll be ocean frontage soon.
But we digress. As we were saying, it rained cats and dogs today. This phrase, to rain cats and dogs, is something of a problem. One suggestion, popular in compilations of trivia, is that heavy downpours flushed any dead dogs and cats from gutters of Medieval cities. The first problem with that is that there is no record of the phrase before the 1730s. The second objection is that an earlier version (c. 1650) seems to have been to rain dogs and polecats.
Then again, odd things do fall out of the sky occasionally. It may surprise some of our readers but there are documented instances of fish, frogs and hazelnuts (among other things) falling with the rain. Perhaps the English just accepted the idea that, from time to time, really peculiar items fall from the heavens. This scarcely explains the Welsh equivalent, though. It translates as "raining old ladies and sticks".
The word cat is known in Latin (cattus) and Greek (kattos, katta) from the 1st century onwards and is common to many European languages (German katz, Italian gatto, French chat, Spanish gato, Welsh cath, Russian kot). Oddly, there are no equivalents outside of the European languages. This time there is no Indo-European root - the ancient Indo-European people didn't keep cats. Perhaps the word cat came from Egypt, along with the animal itself.
An exaggerated fear of cats is called ailurophobia. This psychological term is constructed from two Greek words ailuros "cat"+ phobia "fear". On the other hand, some scholars have suggested that the Greeks didn't keep cats at all and that ailuros meant a kind of mongoose.
Medieval fairs were places of wonder, delight and dastardly deception. An innocent serf might be sold a cat in sack, believing it to be a piglet. Of course, the trickster is careful not to let the cat out of the bag* so that our poor serf buys a pig in a poke (= "sack"). Many didn't even reach the fair and were robbed on the way. The most common technique was to pull the victim's hood over his eyes while cutting his purse-strings. Hence our expressions to hoodwink, to pull the wool over [someone's] eyes and, a word for thief, cutpurse. Speaking of thieves, a cat-burglar is one who has the agility of a cat and who scales the outside of buildings in order to effect an entry (U.S. translation "second-story man").
A male cat is commonly called a tom but may also be called a boar-cat, a ram-cat or (in Scotland) a gib. In earlier times females were called doe-cats.
As early as 1400, cat was used as a term for "prostitute", the term remaining current for several centuries. Accordingly, in the 1800s, cat-house meant "brothel", especially in the U.S. but there was an earlier meaning. In siege warfare, a cat-house (Old French chat-chastel) was a kind of portable protective shed.
Those who complain about small rooms often say that they don't have room to swing a cat. Why would anyone wish to torture poor little kitty thus? The cat in this expression is the cat-o'-nine-tails - not a cuddly pet but a whip with nine (knotted) lashes used for punishment in the Royal Navy. There is black humor in its name. Have you have ever wondered why it is a cat (and not a dog or even a wombat) -o'-nine-tails? It is because it scratches your back.
Legend has it that U.S. baseball was derived from a game called one-old-cat (it wasn't) by Col. Abner Doubleday (he didn't). There have been various cat- games, though, such as tip-cat, cat-stick, cat-in-the-hole, cat-and-dog and kit-cat. The Kit-cat Club was a group of Whig politicians who met, during the reign of James II, in a pie-house kept by a Christopher (= Kit) Catling.
When two people fight fiercely they fight like cats and dogs or they fight like Kilkenny cats. Why the cats of that particular part of Ireland should have such a pugnacious reputation we can't say. Lewis Carroll was probably inspired to create his perennially cheerful "Cheshire cat" from the expression to grin like a Cheshire cat. But this expression itself requires an explanation. In the 1800s, rounds of Cheshire cheese were often made in molds which cast a cat's face onto the cheese. The whimsical notion was that the presence of the cat would keep mice away from the cheese.
Hmmm, cheese. That's a thought. It must be suppertime somewhere in the world...
*While this is the popular explanation for let the cat out of the bag, some etymologists are beginning to doubt it. Have you ever put a cat in a bag? Believe us, it will not sit quietly until the bag is opened! However, no other explanation has been propounded.
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