Cat Connotations

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I recently discussed senses of words for various species from the dog family as they apply to human behavior and characteristics. Every dog has its day, but now it’s time for the cats to come out.

1. Cat
This word for any feline or, specifically, the small domesticated species became a term of contempt for a woman and slang for a prostitute (brothels have been called cathouses), and vicious or sniping comments or behavior, probably from an association with the behavior of agitated cats, are still referred to as catty.

Similarly, noisy protests from spectators at a performance or competition are referred to as catcalls, presumably from the unpleasant sound of cats howling out during fighting or courtship. However, cat also came, first in Black English and then in more widespread usage, to be synonymous with fellow or guy and became a label for a jazz aficionado.

A fat cat is, by analogy with the physical aspect of an obese feline, a wealthy, self-satisfied person. Many idioms and expressions employ the word cat, including proverbial references to cats having nine lives and letting the cat out of the bag.

2. Cougar
This relatively recent slang term, from an analogy with feline predation, refers to older women who seek younger males as sex partners.

3. Kitten
The word for a young cat applies to a seductive or alluring woman; it’s sometimes expanded to “sex kitten.”

4. Lion
Because of this animal’s regal nature, its name is used to celebrate noble bearing; the word also alludes to bravery (as in the epithet Lionhearted) but also to greed or tyranny. The verb lionize refers to adulation; leonine is an adjective that often describes a person’s feline appearance or comportment.

5. Tiger
The ferocious nature of the tiger has inspired the use of its name to express admiration for a person’s tenacity or competitive spirit. By contrast, a paper tiger is just what the idiom suggests: an apparently powerful entity that is not a force or a threat.

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6 thoughts on “Cat Connotations”

  1. Mark,
    Thanks for the post. It led me to look up cat-call in the OED where I learned that the original cat-call was a sound-emitting device like a whistle that people took to the theatre to blow on when the acting displeased them. Samuel Pepys (1660) notes that he bought one “for two groats.”

  2. Cat out of the bag comes from the Royal Navy. The “cat” was the “cat’o nine tails,” which was the whip used for flogging miscreants. It was kept in a bag. So letting the cat out of the bag meant discipline for somebody while the crew watched.

  3. On the post about canine connotations, Laura C asked about the origin of “cougar,” meaning an older woman seeking sexual relationships with younger men. I’ve searched many times and many sources (possibly for a line from a movie, book, or some other pop culture reference) without success. I recognize that the list above is alphabetical. However, if the terms “cougar” and “kitten” in this post were reversed, the origin becomes obvious, and it’s the way I’ve always believed it came about. In the dating arena, a guy might walk into a bar, nightclub, etc. and label a playful, flirtatious, and provocatively-dressed young woman as a “sex kitten.” So, then what would such a man call a flirtatious, provocatively dressed, predatory, mature woman attempting a sex kitten role? A queen? That one already has other connotations. A lioness? Too matronly. So, maybe another large cat that’s more dangerous than alluring.

  4. I just found this site and I really like it. It is often small simple words that trip you up, but when you understand the diffences you are less likely to make the mistakes. I bookmarked it. Thanks for your hard work on it.

  5. I would disagree with Nan Roberts’ analysis of “let the cat out of the bag.” The term refers to a bit of subterfuge or falsehood being uncovered, usually because somebody involved didn’t keep their mouth shut, rather than a person being punished for some infraction (as in being whipped). The history of the term refers to an underhanded practice of selling a young animal (probably a piglet) which is handed-over to the purchaser in a cloth bag (a poke, begetting the phrase “bought a pig in a poke,” meaning to buy something sight-unseen and probably getting rooked in the deal) and substituting the valued animal with a cat, which was considered valueless. Thus, when the buyer got the poke home and opened it he discovered he’d been cheated — literally, the cat was let out of the bag.

  6. You forgot “ailurophobe / -phile = person who fears / loves cats.”

    Although the word later came to refer to the domestic cat, ‘ailouros’ (= wavy tail) in Aristophanes time denoted the ferret / domesticated weasel, the mouser of the time.

    (Until late Roman times, it was forbidden to export cats from Egypt, where they were considered sacred).

    And Stephen is right – “let the cat out of the bag” had nothing to do with the Navy, Royal or otherwise.

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