5 Popular Cat Clichés and Sayings: What Do They Mean?


Sadie is a cat lover, freelance writer, and researcher with a degree in English Literature and a background in business communications.

Learn more about the meaning and origin of popular cat clichés, expressions and sayings. Take the quiz at the end of the article to uncover more fancy feline phrases!

5 Common Cat Clichés

  1. Curiosity Killed the Cat
  2. Let the Cat Out of the Bag
  3. Take a Cat Nap
  4. Has the Cat Got Your Tongue?
  5. It's Raining Cats and Dogs!

1. Curiosity Killed the Cat

This morbid-sounding cat expression is often used as a warning about the dangers of poking around in other people's business or getting involved in things that don't concern you. Perhaps we use this phrase because cats are naturally inquisitive and like to roam freely without concern for traditional boundaries. They often end up trespassing where they're not wanted.

2. Let the Cat Out of the Bag

When someone has "let the cat out of the bag," they've revealed a secret, uncovered a deceit, or exposed something that was hidden. The origin of this expression comes from a time when farmers would bring a suckling pig to market in a bag. Sometimes a cat would be put in the bag instead to try and cheat the buyer out of his money. If the buyer bought the squirming, wriggling bag without looking inside first, he would be ripped off. If the buyer looked in the bag before before handing over is cash, then the cat would be "let out of the bag" and the farmer's lie would be exposed.

3. Take a Cat Nap

A cat nap is a short, light, opportunistic snooze that is taken when you're quite busy but you really need to recharge your batteries. Cat naps are light and refreshing; they don't leave you feeling sluggish or groggy when you wake up.

Some people also refer to cat naps as power naps, but a power nap can usually be taken day or night (such as in the middle of a late-night study session). A cat nap, on the other hand, is taken during the day.

So what does a cat have to do with a cat nap? Cats often sleep lightly during the day, sometimes seated upright (as in the photo below). They're quite alert during these cat naps, and if you watch carefully, you can see a napping cat's ears move in the direction of various sounds, even when they appear to be asleep.

4. Has the Cat Got Your Tongue?

When someone, often a child, is rendered speechless because they've been caught in a fib or they're too shy to speak, someone might say to them, "Has the cat got your tongue?" There's no particular reason that the phrase includes "the cat" other than that the saying was often directed towards children. Asking a shy child, "Has the cat got your tongue?" may coax a smile out of a nervous youngster while a stern "Speak up, child!" would have the opposite effect.

5. It's Raining Cats and Dogs!

When someone looks out the window and exclaims "It's raining cats and dogs!" you'd better get your boots and umbrella out. The rain is coming down hard and heavy.

The expression is believed to be related to Norse mythology—the cat symbolizes heavy rain while the dog, a companion of Odin, the storm God, represents blasting wind. Whether or not you know Norse mythology, the expression makes sense in light of the tumultuous relationships cats and dogs often have.

Can you identify some of these common 'cat-ch" phrases?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. What is a cat burglar?
    • Someone who steals other people's pet kitties.
    • A thief who sneaks into people's homes at night when they are asleep in bed
  2. What does it mean when someone says, "Well, isn't he the cat's pajamas"?
    • He's saying that the person is smart, hip and trendy.
    • The person is wearing clothes that look look cozy and soft, like something a cat would wear (if cat's wore clothes).
  3. What is a cat's cradle?
    • A quiet, cozy spot for a kitten to sleep.
    • A children's game that involves wrapping and pulling string around your fingers to create different shapes.
  4. What does the expression 'herding cats' mean?
    • Trying to get your cats to come inside.
    • Trying to do an impossible task.
  5. Would you want to be friends with someone who is described as "catty"?
    • Yes, because it means they like cats just like me.
    • No, because it means they like to gossip and talk about people behind their backs.

Answer Key

  1. A thief who sneaks into people's homes at night when they are asleep in bed
  2. He's saying that the person is smart, hip and trendy.
  3. A children's game that involves wrapping and pulling string around your fingers to create different shapes.
  4. Trying to do an impossible task.
  5. No, because it means they like to gossip and talk about people behind their backs.

Interpreting Your Score

If you got between 0 and 1 correct answer: I won't pussyfoot around. You need to work on your knowledge of cat sayings and expressions!

If you got between 2 and 3 correct answers: No need to have kittens over your low score. Come back and try again another time.

If you got 4 correct answers: All cats are gray in the dark, they say. So keep working on your cat trivia and maybe you'll make a name for yourself.

If you got 5 correct answers: Well, aren't you the cat's meow! Well done!

Sources:

Almond, Jordan. Dictionary of Word Origins: A History of the Words, Expressions, and ClicheÌs We Use. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Pub. Group, 1998. Print.

Moore, Glenda. Cat-ch Phrases: Cat-related idioms, their meanings and histories

© 2017 Sadie Holloway

Sadie Holloway (author) on July 25, 2017:

Thanks, ronbergeron! That explanation of 'cat out of the bag' makes sense! Thanks for sharing it. I love how old phrases can be so enigmatic. It's hard to tell what the true origin of certain cliches and it's fun hearing about the many different iterations of phrases. Thanks for stopping by and commenting with your insights into a popular cat saying.

Ron Bergeron from Massachusetts, US on July 25, 2017:

"Let the cat out of the bag" is usually described as a nautical term. The "cat" in this case was the "cat o'nine tails", which was a type of whip used when disciplining sailors back in the days of wooden sailing ships. It was stored in a bag to protect it from drying out. When the cat was let out of the bag, discipline was about to be dispensed.

Your description of letting the cat out of the bag sounds to me more like "buying a pig in a poke".

As with most old phrases like this, it's hard to really know the exact origin.

Sadie Holloway (author) on July 20, 2017:

Both the phrase 'the cat's meow' and 'the cat's pajamas' were commonly used by young people in the 1920's, often interchangeably, to describe things that are cool. hip, trendy and stylish. Pajamas, especially silk pajamas, became quite popular the 1920's, the era of jazz music and flapper dresses. Back then, the word 'cat' was slang for young people (think modern-day hipsters and millenials) and that's why we use the phrase 'the cat's pajamas' to describe something that is cool, stylish and highly desirable. I'm not sure how 'the cat's meow' became synonymous with cool and trendy other than the link between the word 'cats' and young people. Perhaps when one of these cool cats expressed an interest in something new and exciting and 'meowed' about it, that's where the phrase's 'the cat's meow' comes from.

I love hearing stories about the meaning of words and phrases so I welcome readers to chime in with what they know about any other cat-ch phrases they like to use.

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on July 19, 2017:

Always interesting to learn the origins of words and phrases Sadie, and so often the origin has very little in common with the modern usage of the word or phrase. Some of those examples you give are almost self-explanatory, whilst others are derived from cultures or folklore dating far into the past.

S Maree on July 18, 2017:

What fun! Aced it 1st time! LOVE KITTIES! Can you tell me how "the cat's meow" came about? When we heard bad piano playing we'd say "sounds like a kitten on the keyboard!". Anyone else use this phrase?

No "catcalls" for you! More! More!


20 Familiar English Idioms

A snowball effect
Meaning: Something has momentum and builds on each other, much like rolling a snowball down a hill to make it bigger

An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Meaning: Apples are healthy and good for you

Burning bridges
Meaning: Damaging a relationship beyond repair

Every dog has his day
Meaning: Everyone gets their chance to do something big

Fit as a fiddle
Meaning: Excellent health

Go down in flames
Meaning: To fail in a spectacular manner

Getting a second wind
Meaning: Having energy again after being tired or worn out

Having your head in the clouds
Meaning: Day dreaming, not paying attention

He/She is off their rocker
Meaning: Someone who is acting crazy or not thinking rationally

It’s always darkest before the dawn
Meaning: Things always get worse before they get better

It takes two to tango
Meaning: One person usually isn’t the only responsible party

Like riding a bike
Meaning: Something that you never forget how to do

Like two peas in a pod
Meaning: Two people who are always together

Run like the wind
Meaning: To run really fast

Through thick and thin
Meaning: Everyone experiences hard and good times

Time is money
Meaning: Work faster or more efficiently

Weather the storm
Meaning: Enduring a trial or hardship

Can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs
Meaning: You can’t make everyone happy

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink
Meaning: You can’t force someone to make what is seemingly the right decision

Clouds on the horizon
Meaning: Trouble is coming or is on its way


6. Fraidy- or Scaredy-Cat

Pet parents know cats can be skittish, a trait that establishes the foundation for this idiom used to describe someone who's timid or frightened, used more frequently during childhood than adulthood. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that by 1871, this term was used as American English slang to denote a coward.

Cats have obviously played a large role in the world's history, and thus found their way into a number of common idioms throughout history, so much so that you probably never even thought about what you were saying or where it originated. But now, the next time you hear someone using one of these phrases, you can wow them with the breadth of your knowledge of common cat sayings history. They might even think you're the cat's pajamas!


45 Southern Phrases Explained for the Yankees Among Us

Heather Barnett

Call us crazy. Call us country. Call us rednecks. Just don’t call us late for supper.

And if you need to understand the conversation around the table, you should know we Southerners have a certain way of talking — and we love it. We also like to think that Southern accents are downright adorable, because, well, they are. And just because y’all can’t always understand what we’re saying, doesn’t mean we’re not making total sense.

The first thing you should know is that Southerners are prone to hyperbole. This list covers some of the main phrases you’ll hear. If it sounds like we might be exaggerating, we probably are, but it’s just for effect.

If you’re looking to decode Southern slang, then you came to the right place. Whether you’ve got a Southern relative or friend, or are just looking for some pointers before a trip down south, we’ve put together a list of phrases you’re likely to hear. Bless your heart, don’t worry too much about it. We’re sure you’ll get up to speed… eventually.

1. Access road

Service road the road that allows you entrance to the highway.

2. (A) mind to

To consider doing something.

3. Aren’t you precious?

Most always said sarcastically in response to someone being offensive (i.e., if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all).

4. Being ugly

This has nothing do with physical appearance — instead it means misbehaving.


Everyday sayings explained

Ever wondered why the “hair of the dog” is a hangover cure, why a bird in the hand is worth “two in the bush” and who decided “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”? Some sayings are now so commonplace, we’ll utter them with no idea of where they came from. But every phrase, saying or proverb starts somewhere, and thanks to the Phrase Finder, we’ve uncovered the (often disputed) authors, meanings and stories behind some of the most commonplace sayings. The results are surprising, and prove it wasn’t just Shakespeare changing our language…

The apple of my eye

This Old English phrase was first attributed to King Aelfred (the Great) of Wessex, AD 885, in Gregory's Pastoral Care, but also appears in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Hold a candle to

This phrase originates from when apprentices were expected to hold the candle up, so their more experienced colleagues could see what they were doing. The phrase first appeared in print in Sir Edward Dering's The fower cardinal-vertues of a Carmelite fryar, in 1641.

Chow down

'Chow down' was first used by the U.S. military during WWII. 'Chow' is a Chinese breed of dog, that became a western slang term for food due to the Chinese's reputation for eating dog meat.

Come up trumps

'Come up trumps' is a variant of 'turn up trumps', which has been used since the early 17th century. "Trump" is a corruption of triumph, which was the name of a popular card game during this period.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

This medieval proverb comes from the sport of falconry, where the 'bird in the hand' (the preying falcon) was worth more than 'two in the bush' - the prey.

Hair of the dog that bit you

This term for a hangover cure is another medieval saying, originating from the belief that once bitten by a rabid dog, the victim would be cured by applying the same dog's hair to the wound. The first use of it being applied to drinking was in John Heywood's 1546 tome A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue.

Off the record

This American phrase was first attributed to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, who was recorded in The Daily Times-News saying "he was going to talk 'off the record', that it was mighty nice to be able to talk 'off the record' for a change and that he hoped to be able to talk 'off the record' often in the future."

A sight for sore eyes

Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels, first used this phrase in A complete collection of genteel and ingenious conversation, 1738, with the line "The Sight of you is good for sore Eyes."

A stone's throw

This term for 'a short distance' is a variation of 'a stone's cast', first used in early editions of the Bible, but it fell out of use. Writer John Arbuthnot revived it in The History of John Bull, in 1712.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

This sweet saying came from the Roman poet Sextus Propertius' Elegies:"Always toward absent lovers love's tide stronger flows." In 1832, the modern variant of the phrase was coined by a 'Miss Strickland' in The Pocket Magazine of Classic and Polite Literature.

The Acid Test

This term came from the California Gold Rush in the 19th century, when prospectors and dealers used acid to distinguish gold from base metal - if the metal dissolved in a mixture of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid, it was real.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away

Was this catchy rhyme a proverb from Pembrokeshire, or Devon? The earliest recording of the phrase in 1866, states "Eat an apple on going to bed, And you'll keep the doctor from earning his bread" is from the former. But in 1913, Elizabeth Wright recorded this phrase from the latter: "Ait a happle avore gwain to bed, An' you'll make the doctor beg his bread or as the more popular version runs: An apple a day Keeps the doctor away."

Cool as a cucumber

Despite sounding like a modern-day phrase, Cool as a cucumber actually first appeared in John Gay's Poems, New Song on New Similies, in 1732: "I . cool as a cucumber could see The rest of womankind."

Busy as a bee

Chaucer coined the term in the Squire's Tale, from his Canterbury Tales, around 1386-1400.

As happy as Larry

This saying has Australia and New Zealand origins, but who is 'Larry'? There are two contenders. The first is late nineteenth-century Australian boxer Larry Foley, who never lost a fight. The other is a deriviation of the Australian/New Zealand slang term 'larrikin', meaning a rough type or hooligan.

Bring home the bacon

This phrase is often attributed to the story of Dunmow Flitch. In 1104, a couple in Great Dunmow, Essex, impressed the Prior of Little Dunmow with their love and devotion so much, that he awarded them a flitch [a side] of bacon.

A baker's dozen

This phrase is widely believed to originate from medieval times, when English bakers gave an extra loaf when selling a dozen in order to avoid being penalized for selling a short weight. Bakers could be fined, pilloried or flogged for selling 'underweight' bread.

Ball and chain

This rather crude description of a wife refers to the ball and chain strapped to a prisoner's leg in American and British prisons in the early 19th century.

Barking mad

The most probable meaning for this phrase is a reference to rabid dogs, barking in their madness. A more interesting (but less likely) tale is that 'barking mad' originates from the east London suburb of Barking, where there was an asylum for the insane during the medieval period.

Basket case

Originally, this term was used by the US military after WWI, referring to soldiers who had lost arms and legs and had to be carried by others.

Bee in your bonnet

This phrase was first recorded in Alexander Douglas's Aeneis, in 1513: "Quhat bern be thou in bed with heid full of beis?". It has been speculated that the bonnet could refer to the protective headgear beekeepers wear.

Beat around the bush

Beat around the bush evolved from "beat about the bush", a term used in birdhunting to rouse the prey out of the bushes, and into nets. Grouse hunters still use beaters today.

Two peas in a pod

Referring to the fact that two peas in a pod are identical,this phrase dates from the 16th century, and appeared in John Lyly's Euphues and his England, in 1580: "Wherin I am not unlike unto the unskilfull Painter, who having drawen the Twinnes of Hippocrates, (who wer as lyke as one pease is to an other)."

Born with a silver spoon in one's mouth

Although this phrase was thought to be British, referring to the upper classes born into privilege, the first recorded use was in America in 1801, in a speech made in U.S. Congress: "It was a common proverb that few lawyers were born with silver spoons in their mouths."

A man after my own heart

This saying comes from the Bible (King James Version): Samuel 13:14: "But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the LORD hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the LORD hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the LORD commanded thee."

Cut of your jib

Sir Walter Scott brought this phrase into common use in 1824, but what actually is a jib? This triangular sail is used on sailing ships, and as each country has its own style of 'jib', the 'cut of your jib' determines where a boat originates from.

Namby Pamby

'Namby Pamby' was a nickname invented in the eighteenth century by poets John Gay, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift to mock the English poet and playright Ambrose Philips. Philips, a tutor to King George’s grandchildren, gained notoriety for the sycophantic poems he wrote about his charges, often using babyish language such as “eensy weesy”– and his rival poets gave his own name the same treatment.

The female of the species is more deadly than the male

This now famous phrase is a line from Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Female of the Species , published in 1911.

Frog in the throat

The earliest use of this name for a sore throat, was actually supposed to be a ‘cure’. In The Stevens Point Journal, November 1894, the Taylor Bros advertised a medicine called 'Frog in the Throat' that will “cure hoarseness” for only 10 cents a box. What a bargain…

Fools rush in

This is a shortened line from English poet Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, 1709: "For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread". The ‘fools’ in question are literary critics – although fool did not have such negative connotations in the 18th century.

Fly off the handle

Coined by American writer Thomas C Haliburton in 1843 (he also invented “won’t take no for answer” and “ginger up”), this phrase was inspired by the way an axe-head will fly off its handle if loose.

Fly by the seat of your pants

This aviation term emerged in 1938 in US newspapers, to describe pilot Douglas Corrigan’s (slightly perilous) flight from the USA to Ireland.

Flogging a dead horse

Dating from the 17th century, a “dead horse” was a term for work which a person had been paid for in advance (and already spent).

Gee Whiz!

First used in the late 19th century, Gee Whiz is actually shorthand (or a “minced oath” in linguistic terms) for Jesus.

Get the sack

This slang term for getting fired originates in France, and alludes to tradesmen, who would take their own bag or “sac” of tools with them when dismissed from employment

Wide Berth

Originally a nautical term, a “berth” is a large space where a ship can be moored.

Go down like a lead balloon

The US version of this phrase “Go over like a lead balloon”, first appeared in a Mom-N-Pop cartoon in several newspapers in 1924. It then fell out of use until after WWII – and was said to inspire a certain heavy metal band to name themselves Led Zeppelin.

Gadzooks!

This word brings comic strip superheroes to mind, but like Gee Whizz, it’s another minced oath – meaning “God’s words”, and first used in various 17th century plays.

Goody two shoes

Good two shoes comes from a Christian retelling of Cinderella, a nursery tale named The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, published in 1765. The poor orphan of the title only has one shoe – but is given two shoes by a rich man as a reward for her virtue.

Green-eyed monster

Shakespeare coined this term in The Merchant of Venice, when Portia says: "And shuddering fear, and green-eyed jealousy! O love, Be moderate". He then used green eyed monster again in his most famous play about jealousy – Othello.

Saved by the bell

Contrary to popular belief, this phrase didn’t priginate from the popular 90s sitcom. 'Saved by the Bell' is boxing slang from the late 19th century. A boxer who is in danger of losing a bout can be 'saved' from defeat by the bell that marks the end of a round.

Dead Ringer

This word was used in US horse-racing at the end of the 19th century. A 'ringer' is a horse substituted for another of similar appearance in order to defraud the bookies.

Bad Books

In the Middle Ages, 'one's books' meant 'one's reckoning or cognizance'. So to be 'out of someone's books' meant you were no longer part of their life or of interest to them.

In Spades

The expression 'in spades' , used to described a large amount, is a 20th century US word used in Bridge and card games, referring to Spades as one of the highest ranking suits.

I’ll be there with bells on

The first record of this phrase in print is in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and the Damned, 1922: "All-ll-ll righty. I'll be there with bells!"

In stitches

Another Shakespeare coinage, although not used again until the 20th century. In Twelfth Night, 1602, Maria says: "If you desire the spleen, and will laugh yourself into stitches, follow me."

In the limelight

Limelight is an intense white light widely used in 19th century theatres to illuminate the stage. Clearly, actors who were the centre of attention on stage being said to be in the limelight.

In the buff

A buff-coat was a light browny/yellow leather tunic worn by English soldiers up until the 17th century. The original meaning of 'in the buff' was simply to be wearing such a coat. Later on, 'in the buff' was used to mean naked, due to the colour of the skin, which is similar to the buff coat.

Keeping up with the Joneses

This American term emerged in 1913, when Arthur (Pop) Momand started a Keep Up With The Joneses comic strip in the New York Globe. The strip was so popular in, that in 1915 a cartoon film of the same name was released.

Mad as a hatter

19th century Mercury used to be used in the making of hats. This was known to have affected the nervous systems of hatters, causing them to tremble and appear insane. Mercury poisoning is still known today as 'Mad Hatter's disease'.


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