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SMUG CATS, SICK CATS AND SMILING CATS




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Cats' diets have given us "like the cat that got the cream" to mean self-satisfied and "like the cat that got the canary" which once meant to look guilty, but nowadays suggests smugness. On the subject of smugness, people might consider themselves "the cats' whiskers" (i.e. well turned out, since a cat is forever grooming its whiskers) even if they resemble "something the cat dragged in" i.e. badly mauled prey! For some reason people who once thought they were "the cat's whiskers" started to think they were "the cat's pyjamas" early in the 20th Century. Later on, things which were top-notch or state-of-the-art might be described as "the cat's meow". "Sitting in a cat bird seat" means being in a favoured or advantageous position.

Back to the cats that got the cream. According to a 19th Century saying, "the cat shuts its eyes when it steals cream" suggests a cat denying it is doing wrong, though this isn't likely to be through guilt. Cats often half-close their eyes when they are enjoying something - including an illicit lick of cream. And what about "as busy as a cat in a tripe shop" from the 19th Century? A term applied to corporate bosses who always get the cream is "fat cats" and there is often talk about industry fat cats. "As busy as a two-headed cat in a creamery" suggests a cat whose two heads are busy licking up milk, cream and butter - far more industrious than a cat with only one head and tongue! Anyone this busy is very busy indeed and quite possibly doing something he shouldn't be doing. A saying I've heard only once is like a cat with nine tails referring to someone who is both smug and energetic.

While a smug person looks like "the cat that got the canary" a person in a difficult situation can "look like a cat with feathers in its craw" (or "maw"). This is possibly Gaelic, but I don't know the exact origins. Depending on the circumstances, it can mean someone has been caught with possible evidence of their crime. Alternatively, it can refer to someone who has said something they shouldn't and who wishes they could swallow their words and thus looks as uncomfortable as a cat caught red-handed. Perhaps they have said something which has put the cat among the pigeons and caused an uproar.



From smugness to nerves - people who are nervous and edgy might be described as being "as nervous as kittens". Kittens, of course, are skittish and fidgetting and unable to sit still for long; an apt description of a nervous person! Of course, when all that nervous energy has been burnt off, they might end up curled up peacefully and "sleeping like kittens" instead.

A 17th Century saying is "cats eat what hussies spare" which is obscure and may having nothing to do with eating. It may be a reference to mating habits rather than their eating habits, since cats are fastidious in what they eat, but seemingly indiscriminate in who they mate with. The "cat" in the saying may refer to a low-grade whore who services clients turned away by more discriminating and less impoverished prostitutes.

"Sick as a cat" could be from their habit of regurgitating hairballs or indigestible food, or from the longer saying "as sick as a cat in hell with no claws" i.e. a cat in an unenviable situation and deprived of its main form of defence. Cats are very subject to vomiting and the vomit of a drunkard was sometimes called "a cat" while the act of spewing was called "shooting the cat". A variation on this is "as much chance as a cat in hell with no claws" giving us "a cat in hell's chance" with a more recent variation being "as much chance as a celluloid cat in hell". All of which suggest someone in an unenviable situation. A lucky person might "land on his feet", a reference to the ability of a cat to land on its feet after a fall. The 14th Century version reads "he is like a cat - fling him which way will, he'll land on his legs" and suggests great resilience or great luck!



The phrase "Smiling like a Cheshire Cat" is associated with Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland". While Lewis Carroll poularised the phrase, the origin pre-dates his works and several derivations have been offered. The "Cheshire cat" in "grin like a Cheshire cat" is said to refer to Cheshire cheese which used to be moulded like a cat. Another is to a coat of arms or even to a family named Catt. One explanation for the disappearing Cheshire cat is a cat carving on a wooden pew in a Cheshire church - as the churchgoer kneels or stands (according to the part of the church service) the cat appeared to vanish and reappear due to angle of view. The allusion may be to the grinning cheese-cat, but is applied to those who show their teeth and gums when they laugh or grin. It would probably have remained a local saying if not for the vanishing Cheshire Cat in "Alice in Wonderland".



Cats may smile, but do they laugh? What about "enough to make a cat laugh"? Cats take themselves very seriously - they are dignified and composed and even if they have a fall or mishap they quickly regain their dignity and composure. It's hard to imagine a cat doing something as undignified as laughing (and certainly not laughing at itself!). Anything that is enough to make a cat laugh must be very funny indeed.

"As melancholy as a gib-cat" comes from Shakespeare's Henry IV. In the later part of the 19th century, gib, or gibbe, (with a hard 'g') was a Lancashire term for a tomcat. However Fennell's "Natural History of Quadrupeds" (1843) defined a Gib-cat or Gilbert as an emascualted (neutered) male cat. He wrote that such cats had a subdued and melancholy appearance.


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