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Cat Proverbs


A cat has nine lives. A cat is more tenacious of life than other animals, because it generally lights upon its feet without injury, the foot and toes being padded so as to break the fall. (See Nine.)

Tub What wouldst thou have with me?

Mer. Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives.”

Before the cat can lick her eari.e. before the Greek kalends. Never. No cat can lick her ear. (See Never.)

Care killed the cat. (See page 216, 2, Care.)

In the dark all cats are gray. All persons are undistinguished till they have made a name.

Not room to swing a cat. Swinging cats as a mark for sportsmen was at one time a favourite amusement. There were several varieties of this diversion. Sometimes two cats were swung by their tails over a rope. Sometimes a cat was swung to the bough of a tree in a bag or sack. Sometimes it was enclosed in a leather bottle.

Sick as a cat. Cats are very subject to vomiting. Hence the vomit of a drunkard is called “a cat,” and the act of discarding it is called “shooting the cat.”

Let the cat out of the bag. To disclose a secret. It was formerly a trick among country folk to substitute a cat for a sucking-pig, and bring it in a bag to market. If any greenhorn chose to buy a “pig in a poke” without examination, all very well; but if he opened the sack, “he let the cat out of the bag,” and the trick was disclosed.

“She let the cat out of her bag of verse … she almost proposed to her hero in rhyme.”—George Meredith: The Egotist, iii.

To bell the cat. (See page 119, Bell.)

To turn cat-in-pan. To turn traitor, to be a turncoat. The phrase seems to be the French tourner côte en peine (to turn sides in trouble). I do not think it refers to turning pancakes.

“When George in pudding-time came oʹer

And moderate men looked big, sir

I turned a cat-in-pan once more.

And so became a Whig, Sir.”

Bacon says, “There is a cunning which we in England call the turning of the cat in the pan; which is, when that which a man says to another, he says it as if another had said it to him.”

Touch not a cat but a glove. Here “but” is used in its original meaning of “beout,” i.e. without. (For another example of “but” meaning without, see Amos iii. 7.) The words are the motto of Mackintosh, whose crest is “cat-a-mountam salient guardant proper”; supporters, two cats proper The whole is a pun on the word Catti, the Teutonic settlers of Caithness, i.e. Catti-ness, and mean, “Touch not the clan Cattan or Mountain Cat without a glaive.” The same words are the adopted motto of Grant of Ballindalloch, and are explained by the second motto, ensë et anʹimo.


In French: On ne prend pas tel chat sans moufles.

What can you have of a cat but her skin? The thing is useless for any purpose but one. In former times the cat’s fur was used for trimming cloaks and coats, but the flesh is utterly useless.

Who ate the cat? A gentleman who had his larder frequently assailed by bargees, had a cat cooked and placed there as a decoy. It was taken like the other foods, and became a standing jest against these larder pilferers.

A Cheshire cat. He grins like a Cheshire cat. Cheese was formerly sold in Cheshire moulded like a cat. The allusion is to the grinning cheese-cat, but is applied to persons who show their teeth and gums when they laugh. (See Alice in Wonderland.)

A Kilkenny cat. The story is that, during the rebellion of Ireland, Kilkenny was garrisoned by a troop of Hessian soldiers, who amused themselves in barracks by tying two cats together by their tails and throwing them across a clothes-line to fight. The officers, hearing of this, resolved to put a stop to the practice. The look-out man, enjoying the sport, did not observe the officer on duty approaching the barracks; but one of the troopers, more quick-sighted, seizing a sword, cut the two tails, and the cats made their escape. When the officer inquired the meaning of the two bleeding tails, he was coolly told that two cats had been fighting and had devoured each other all but the tails.

⁂ Whatever the true story, it is certain that the municipalities of Kilkenny and Irishtown contended so stoutly about their respective boundaries and rights to the end of the seventeenth century, that they mutually impoverished each other, leaving little else than “two tails” behind.

Whittington’s cat. A cat is a ship formed on the Norwegian model, having a narrow stern, projecting quarters, and deep waist. It is strongly built, and used in the coal trade. Harrison speaks of it as a “cat” or “catch.” According to tradition, Sir Richard Whittington made his money by trading in coals, which he conveyed in his “cat” from Newcastle to London. The black faces of his coal-heavers gave rise to the tale about the Moors. In confirmation of this suggestion, it may be added that Whittington was Lord Mayor in 1397, and coal was first made an article of trade from Newcastle to London in 1381.


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Entry taken from Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, edited by the Rev. E. Cobham Brewer, LL.D. and revised in 1895.

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Cat Jumps (The)
Cat Stane
Cat and Dog
Cat and Fiddle
Cat and Kittens
Cat and Tortoise
Cat has nine Lives (A)
Cat i the Adage (The)
Cat may look at a King (A)
Cat Proverbs
Cat’s Cradle
Cat’s Foot
Cat’s Melody (The)
Cat’s Paw
Cat’s Sleep
Catalogue Raisonné (French)