When someone’s acting timid or easily afraid, we sometimes call them “scaredy cats.” For example: “Jacob is being a scaredy cat!” Most people know the phrase and when to use it but not its origins. Written records of the term “scaredy cat” go back to the late 1800s or early 1900s, depending on who you ask.
“Fraidy-cat” seems to come a little earlier, used in an 1897 newspaper article by The Chronicle. It morphed when it popped up again in the short-lived comic strip Billy Bounce—the author described the protagonist as a scaredy cat.
Author Dorothy Parker helped popularize the term “scaredy cat” in her book The Waltz, published in 1933. The phrase only skyrocketed from there, and now it’s ingrained in the public consciousness just like other animal-related metaphors.
Simply put, a scaredy cat is someone who’s skittish, timid, or flighty. You’re never sure how they’ll react to an unfamiliar situation or stress, but running away is common. An aversion to taking risks could also get you called a scaredy cat. You could even call a cat a scaredy cat when they’re acting scared.
The inspiration behind this phrase is fairly obvious to anyone who’s ever accidentally startled a cat. They can be very skittish, especially feral cats unused to humans. Mostly they just lie around, but cats on the prowl are easily startled into running away. This translates well to a flighty, timid human, so the phrase makes sense.
Humans have been using animals to describe human behavior and even the weather for centuries. Does the phrase “raining cats and dogs” ring a bell for anyone? There’s also our tendency to add -y onto words, which completely changes their meaning. In the case of “scaredy,” that means the cat has fearful qualities.
Other Cat-Related Phrases
Cats have accompanied us for thousands of years, so it only makes sense that they’d leave their mark on language. Colorful phrases using cats are common across languages, and English has a fair few. Let’s look at some other cat-related metaphors most people are familiar with.
Other Phrases/Terms About Fear
“Scaredy cat” isn’t the only way we describe fear. As one of the most primal emotions, humans have come up with a multitude of idioms that poke fun and explain the feeling. Let’s check out some other colloquial phrases related to being afraid. These include:
- Afraid of their own shadow
- Scared out of your wits
- Like a deer in headlights
Cats have been with us as far back as ancient Egypt, and phrases like “scaredy cat” are some of the ways they’ve made an impact on humans. Some cats are more skittish than others, while others are braver and less suited to be called a scaredy cat.
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