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10 Cat Idioms & Sayings (Meanings & Origins Explained)

The English language is funny at times—take idioms, for example. Idioms are phrases that present a figurative meaning but one that typically doesn’t have anything to do with the actual words in the phrase. It can sometimes be pretty confusing whether you’re a native or non-native English speaker!

Out of the wealth of idioms in the English language, you’ll find many that involve cats. You’re probably familiar with some of these phrases (“Cat got your tongue?”), but have you ever wondered where these phrases came from and what they mean? We’ve rounded up ten of the most common cat idioms and sayings to explain just that!

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Top 10 Cat Idioms & Sayings

1. As Nervous as a Long-Tailed Cat in a Room Full of Rocking Chairs

Meaning: The meaning of this one is fairly explanatory. If you put a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs that were rocking away, the cat’s tail would most likely get squashed at some point by a rocker, which means the cat would be pretty nervous. And that’s the meaning of this idiom—to be incredibly nervous.

Origin: The phrase appears to have originated in 1953 in a syndicated column in a newspaper that stated, “Next to living on the side of a volcano, the most hazardous existence we can think of is that of a long-tailed cat in a house full of rocking chairs.” And in 1956, Tennessee Ernie Ford used the phrase, “He was nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs,” making it popular throughout the Southern states.

tail of a cat on vintage background
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2. Cat Got Your Tongue?

Meaning: This is one of the more commonly used idioms regarding felines (and is possibly the most popular one!). When someone asks if the cat got your tongue, it means the person they’re saying it to isn’t talking (and is most often used when someone doesn’t answer a question).

Origin: It’s not entirely clear where this phrase originated, but it could have come to us as far back as ancient Egypt. In those days, crime could be punished by the removal of a person’s tongue (that was then fed to a cat). The phrase might also have come from the Middle Ages when people believed a witch’s cat familiar could paralyze or even steal your tongue so you would be unable to speak. However, the phrase might also only date to 19th century England and the United States, when the phrase was used on children who had gotten in trouble and wouldn’t answer questions.

cat lying on grass while its tongue out
Image Credit: meineresterampe, Pixabay
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3. Cat’s Meow

Meaning: This slang term became popular in America in the 1920s and was used to proclaim that something was excellent. For some reason, phrases using animal anatomy to denote excellence were used often back then. Related phrases include the cat’s pajamas, bee’s knees, and canary’s tusks.

Origin: This idiom was coined by American journalist and cartoonist Thomas Dorgan, who also invented several other phrases and superlatives.

abbyssinian cat meowing
Image Credit: New Africa, Shutterstock
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4. Curiosity Killed the Cat

Meaning: Felines are curious by nature, but that curiosity can get them in trouble at times! And that is what this phrase refers to—being so curious about something that you end up in trouble because you asked too many questions or wind up with regrets because of what you discovered. Essentially, don’t go poking your nose into things that don’t concern you!

Origin: This phrase seems to be a more modern version of “care killed the cat”, which was used often by the end of the 16th century (including by Shakespeare). “Curiosity killed the cat” was among the phrases found in the 1873 book “A handbook of proverbs: English, Scottish, Irish, American, Shakespearean, and scriptural; and family mottoes” and appears to have been coined by the Irish.

Curious cat looking between door
Image Credit: Renata Apanaviciene, Shutterstock
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5. Fraidy- or Scaredy-Cat

Meaning: The meaning of this saying is fairly self-explanatory—if you’re a cat parent, you know that felines can be skittish (and jump ten feet in the air), so this phrase is used to describe a person who is scared or timid. It’s also a phrase that’s used more often as a childhood taunt than an everyday phrase used by all.

Origin: As far as the phrase “fraidy-cat” goes, its origins are unknown, but by 1871 it was a commonly used slang term. However, the term “scaredy cat” came later and is most often attributed to Dorothy Parker, who used the phrase in her 1933 story “The Waltz”.

a cat hiding under a couch
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6. It’s Raining Cats and Dogs

Meaning: “It’s raining cats and dogs” simply means it is raining heavily.

Origin: The origin of this phrase is unclear, but there are some theories. One is that the phrase originated in 17th century Europe—back then, drainage systems on buildings weren’t the best, and during heavier rain showers, everything that was caught in them would come pouring out (including corpses of animals that had gotten stuck). But the phrase may be even older and related to the Greek word “katadoupoi,” which refers to waterfalls. However, we don’t know for sure why or when this phrase came into being.

a kitten outside in the rain
Image Credit: NanaCola, Pixabay
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7. Let the Cat Out of the Bag

Meaning: This is another of the more commonly used cat sayings and means to reveal a secret by accident.

Origin: Again, the origins of this phrase are unclear. Folklore indicates it might have something to do with the past of the British Royal Navy, where people were disciplined with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Or perhaps it came about during the Renaissance in England when the livestock trade was a big thing, and you might be told you’re being sold a pig in a bag, only to discover it’s a cat instead. But honestly, no one knows for sure!

cat in paperbag
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8. Like Something the Cat Dragged In

Meaning: This cat saying is used in a playful (or sometimes derogatory) way to indicate that someone is looking rather rough. You may also hear it phrased as, “Look what the cat dragged in” or “something the cat brought in.”

Origins: Yet again, this is an idiom where the exact origins remain unknown. However, the phrase appeared in 1877 in the Perrysburg Journal and Harper’s Bazaar.

cat walking
Image Credit: wilkernet, Pixabay
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9. Like the Cat That Ate the Canary

Meaning: If a cat manages to free a canary from its cage to eat it, then you can imagine that feline would be pretty smug! And that’s the meaning of this phrase—to feel smug or self-satisfied with something you’ve done. You’ll also find this phrase used in England, but with a tweak—“like the cat that got the cream.”

Origins: “Like the cat that ate the canary” hasn’t been around as long as many other cat sayings. It seems the first instance of it being used to describe someone was in 1911 in the Milwaukee Journal as a description of a political figure.

bengal cat outdoor
Image Credit: Seregraff, Shutterstock
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10. While the Cat’s Away, the Mice Will Play

Meaning: This feline phrase is used fairly often as well. Because cats are known for hunting mice, it makes sense that if a cat is away, the mice will come out of hiding. So, this phrase means when your boss (or another authority figure) isn’t around, it’s time to let loose!

Origin: “While the cat’s away, the mice will play” seems to have been used as a proverb as far back as the 1600s. It was used in A Woman Kill’d With Kindness, by Thomas Heywood, in 1607.

grey nebulung cat laying in window
Image Credit: mama_mia, Shutterstock

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Our cats are a large part of our lives and have played a huge role throughout humanity’s history. So, it’s no surprise cats have made their way into some of our more common English idioms and sayings. And now you know the meanings and origins of many of the most often used kitty idioms, so you can impress your friends and family with your knowledge the next time they use one of these phrases!

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