The Grammarphobia Blog

Cat got your tongue?

Q: Why do we say “cat got your tongue” (or variations thereof) when someone is at a loss for words?

A: Many English idioms involve the word “tongue” and have to do with being too quiet, too talkative, speaking too soon, speaking too harshly, and so on.

When someone clams up, we say “the cat has got his tongue” or “cat got your tongue?”

The Oxford English Dictionary has several citations for the phrase, which is surprisingly recent, perhaps no older than the 20th century.

The earliest OED citation is from Henry Howard Harper’s novel Bob Hardwick (1911). The narrator is at a loss for words when a woman speaks to him during a meal at a boarding house.

“Presently she said, ‘Has the cat got your tongue?’

“ ‘No,’ I said; ‘I ain’t seen any cat’; whereupon they all tittered.” (We’ve gone to the original to expand the OED’s quotation.)

Some reference books say the phrase may go back to the 19th century, but they don’t cite the sources.

Why a cat? Nobody knows.

Theories have been suggested from time to time, but none have been substantiated. For example, there’s no evidence that liars in ancient times had their tongues cut off and fed to cats.

The OED doesn’t offer any explanation. Of course, cats tend to steal any tidbit that takes their fancy, irrespective of property rights, so why not a tongue? If your tongue’s been stolen, you can’t speak.

Interestingly, there’s a similar idiom in French, je jette (or donne) ma langue au chat (literally, “I throw (or give) my tongue to the cat”).

Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, edited by Paul Beale, says the French idiom is the equivalent of “I give up; I can’t guess (the riddle or conundrum); I have nothing to say.”

Here are a few more idiomatic phrases having to do with the tongue, along with their meanings and the earliest dates given in the OED.

To “hold (or keep) one’s tongue,” meaning to shut up, dates back to Old English (circa 897).

A man who “hath two tongues” (1484) can’t be trusted.

If “thy tounge runth before thy wit” (1562), then you should think before you speak.

An eloquent person has the right phrase “ever on his tongues end” (1607).

If you lived in the 19th century, anger might have caused you to give someone “a lick with the rough side of my tongue” (1820).

When you’re at a loss for words, you’ve “lost your tongue” (1870).

Sly or contemptuous humor is often described as “tongue in cheek” (1748).

The expression was apparently first recorded in Tobias Smollett’s novel Roderick Random (1748): “I signified my contempt of him, by thrusting my tongue in my cheek.”

With that, we’ll hold our tongues.

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