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.
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.
This relatively recent slang term, from an analogy with feline predation, refers to older women who seek younger males as sex partners.
The word for a young cat applies to a seductive or alluring woman; it’s sometimes expanded to “sex kitten.”
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.
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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