Have you ever thought about the expressions we sometimes use? For me, ones like take the bull by the horns, kill two birds with one stone or wait till the cows come home spring to mind. I use ones like these a lot. I’m sure you do too.
No one questions that it would take courage to wrestle a bull or that to kill two birds with one stone would require amazing accuracy. We don’t mean these words literally. Many of these idioms reference customs of long ago times. Many can’t be verified. Yet they continue in usage anyway because they’re colorful.
The other day someone said that trying to get everyone in my musical group to do the same thing at the same time was like herding cats. The idea of herding cats is daunting. Just the word “herd” conjures up something wild and less than manageable to me.
By the way, did you know a group of cats was called a clowder, a clutter or a glaring? I didn’t.
Anyway, that crazy image of herding cats got me thinking about other cat expressions I casually use.
Okay, sometimes my mind likes to run in ragged lines. Just go with me on this.
If I do everything the same way you do, I’m considered a copycat. If I don’t keep your secret or I blow your surprise, I’ve let the cat out of the bag. If I don’t talk at all, I might be asked if the cat got my tongue. And if I gossip (guilty at times), I might make catty remarks.
Outstanding in some way? You used to be considered the cat’s meow, cat’s whiskers or cat’s pajamas. (Cats wearing pajamas? No, but I love the image.) Rich, privileged people are often called fat cats. And if you do something special or unusual, you could be identified as another breed of cat.
Are you seeing these images in your mind? Be honest. You are.
Years ago a fashionable woman was dubbed a glamour puss; today she’s a fashionista. In the 60’s trendy people were hep cats or cool cats. Now? That same someone would be called uber cool. Unhappy, grouchy or cranky? A sourpuss. (No real change there.) Men who played around were Toms or alley cats – a bad-tempered woman a hellcat.
It can rain cats and dogs (although I’ve never seen them). When I don’t want to commit to something I might be accused of playing a game of cat and mouse. When it comes to making decisions I can pussyfoot around or just wait to see which way the cat jumps. Or I can choose to leave things just the way they are and let sleeping cats lie.
Crazy expressions have a way of creeping into everyday conversation.
I can take a catnap if I’m tired, walk a catwalk to make a fashion statement or craft a cat’s cradle with string when I’m playing with my grandchildren. If I’m too nosy, I need to remember that curiosity killed the cat.
Maybe some of these idioms evolved because cats were common domestic animals and most households owned one to catch their mice. Cat’s emotions and behavior were easy to relate to and describe and thus similar actions were ascribed to human behaviors.
I can look like something the cat dragged in when I’m sloppy and messy, or like a cat that swallowed a canary if I act smug. When I’m nervous I might react like a cat on a hot tin roof. If I’m afraid to try something or take a dare, I might be labeled a scaredy-cat. Although in some instances, not taking a dare might put me in the catbird seat.
No one really knows why some of these expressions have stayed around. I think we continue to use them because they provide a graphic way of getting a point across. Like the history of the word 'cat' itself, the origins are as mysterious as the Sphinx.
Before I sign off, let me just say I’m happy to consider one final expression. The one about cats having nine lives.
That sounds pretty good to me.