The Grammarphobia Blog

Metaphors and cataphors

Q: If dogging one’s footsteps means relentlessly and closely following someone, shouldn’t slowly preceding while swerving erratically be catting one’s footsteps?

A: H-m-m. I never thought of that. I must have been catnapping.

The noun “cat,” of course, is a very old word, dating from around the year 800, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it thusly: “A well-known carnivorous quadruped (Felis domesticus) which has long been domesticated, being kept to destroy mice, and as a house pet.”

The verb first appeared in English in the mid-18th century with the nautical meaning of to raise anchor to the cat-heads, or beams, projecting from the bows of a ship.

In the mid-19th century, the verb took on the meaning of to flog with a cat-o’-nine-tails, according to the OED. Here’s an 1865 citation from the Spectator: “Thirty of them were lashed to a gun, and catted with fifty lashes each.” Yikes!

By the way, the expression “no room to swing a cat” has nothing to do with the cat-o’-nine-tails. If you’d like to read more, I wrote a blog item about this cat-swinging business a few years ago.

Interestingly, the noun “dog” first showed up in English a couple of centuries after the appearance of “cat,” according to the OED. Before then, a dog was referred to as a hund, the Old English word for “hound.”

The verb “dog,” however, has been used since the early 16th century in the sense of to follow closely and stubbornly – that is, doggedly. And that brings us to a linguistic term with a following.

A “cataphora” (pronounced kuh-TAFF-ur-uh) is a pronoun or other stand-in for a following word or phrase – for example, the use of “her” to refer to “Sally” in this sentence: “With her, Sally had a bichon and two poodles.”

Finally, a “cataphor” is an obsolete term for deep sleep. It comes from the Latin for coma and the Greek for an attack of lethargy. Speaking of which, I think it’s time for me to take a catnap.

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