Cat idioms and expressions

We recently blogged about the popular English idiom ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ but do you know of any other cat idioms and expressions? You’d be surprised how many there are! Let’s take a look at a few from the Oxford Words Blog.

Curiosity killed the cat
As the conclusion on a coroner’s report, this might be less than convincing – curiosity would have had to wipe out all nine lives of a cat, for starters – but idiomatically, it is of more use. The expression is a warning that being too inquisitive is likely to get you into trouble. It should also be heeded by any cats wandering around Mars.

No room to swing a cat
When I’m organizing my living arrangements, my primary concerns run along the lines of “Are there enough cupboards in the kitchen?” or “Is there room for fourteen bookcases?” Swinging cats seems to be me a singularly profitless use of time, but (it turns out) this expression – which simply denotes a confined space – refers to cat in the sense of cat-o’-nine-tails – that is, a whip once commonly used by sailors.

Has the cat got your tongue?
This idiomatic question – posed to someone remaining silent when they should be speaking – is one of those which, if you think about it, is rather more unpleasant than you might imagine. Also in this category: ‘touched a raw nerve’ and ‘keep your eyes peeled’. Sorry for making you wince.

Like a cat on a hot tin roof
A wonderfully evocative image, this simile is used to express agitation or anxiety. In British-English, a variant is like a cat on hot bricks. It also, of course, gave rise to the Pulitzer-prizewinning Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).

[Put the] cat among the pigeons
As well as being the title of an Agatha Christie novel, this British-English idiom is used to describe saying or doing something controversial – indeed, something (to continue the ornithological trope) that is likely to ruffle feathers. Having spent time in pigeon-filled parks, I don’t fancy the chances of the average moggy against a flock of pigeons. Most of the felines of my acquaintance would far rather have a gentle nap than rage against the flying of the birds.

And here are just a couple of examples from other languages:

Il gatto scottato teme l’acqua fredda

English-speakers don’t specify which species is under discussion when using the idiom once bitten, twice shy – being bitten by a flea might, one notes, have somewhat different after-effects than being bitten by a rhino – but Italian-speakers would say Il gatto scottato teme l’acqua fredda; that is, ‘the scalded cat fears cold water’.

J’ai d’autres chats à fouetter

Here’s an example of English offering a much more cat-friendly version of a phrase than the French. While English-speakers will refer to having other fish to fry (and you can imagine a cat’s mouth watering at the prospect), in the French language, people have autres chats à fouetter – ‘other cats to whip’.

Which isn’t a particularly pleasant image to end on (even without approaching a cat in hell’s chance or more than one way to skin a cat).  So I suggest, as a restorative, you scroll back up to the top of the page and look again at that pretty little kitty. Awwww.

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