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Sitting in the Cat Word Seat

Rob Kyff on

On an evening dark and dreary, I was pondering possible topics for my next column when my gray tabby cat jumped boldly onto my lap. I had found my subject: the origins of familiar phrases involving cats.

"Evermore," purred he.

-- Cat's pajamas: Before you start picturing my tabby in jammies (something from Catoria's Secret, perhaps), you should know that this term has nothing to do with pajamas and very little to do with cats.

During the 1920s, the trendy young women known as flappers invented several nonsense phrases to denote excellence. Many of these terms combined an animal with a body part or article of clothing: "the bee's knees," "the clam's garters," "the sardine's whiskers" and, yes, "the cat's pajamas."

And, in case you're wondering, "flappers" may have been so called because, in spreading their emergent wings of young adulthood, these women resembled "flappers," fledgling birds just learning to fly. Or the term may have originated because these stylish dressers wore unbuckled galoshes that made flapping sounds as they walked.

-- Cat's-paw: According to an old fable (has there ever been a new fable?), a monkey once spotted some delicious chestnuts roasting in a fire. Realizing he would burn his paws if he tried to retrieve the hot goodies, the monkey somehow talked a passing cat into reaching into the fire to grab the chestnuts for him. The cat burned his paws badly, but the monkey got his toasty treat, and a new term was born.

Do you really think a monkey could persuade a cat to reach into a fire? Me neither! We all know cats won't do ANYTHING you want them to do.

 

Despite this fable's implausibility, it gave rise to the phrase "cat's-paw," meaning "someone who is duped into doing something stupid or dangerous to benefit someone else." In the 1933 novel "The Cat's Paw," for instance, a corrupt political boss tricks an innocent young man into running as a "reform mayor." Why am I thinking of Pete Buttigieg?

Another meaning of "cat's-paw" is less insulting to cats: a brief, light wind that ruffles the water after a calm. Some say this wind is called a "cat's-paw" because the pattern it creates on the water resembles feline paw prints. Others believe it's because the water's surface looks as if it has been tousled by the paw of a playful cat.

I could probably determine which explanation is correct by poring over some dusty nautical dictionaries, but I'd rather sit here petting my cat's paws.

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Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2020 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

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