The Grammarphobia Blog

Scratch words

Q: What, if anything, does a cat-o’-nine-tails have to do with a cat?

A: The expression “cat-o’-nine-tails,” referring to the whip of nine knotted lashes, was first recorded in the late 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, though it was probably well known before that.

Here’s the earliest citation, from William Congreve’s play Love for Love (1695): “If you should give such language at sea, you’d have a cat-o’-nine-tails laid cross your shoulders.”

Why a cat? The OED speculates that “the name was originally one of grim humour, in reference to its ‘scratching’ the back.”

Several people have asked me in the past if the cat-o’-nine-tails was somehow connected with the old expression “no room to swing a cat.” The answer is no. I discussed this myth in an Oct. 29, 2006, blog item.

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