The Grammarphobia Blog

A cat’s-paw in fable and law

Q: In an appearance on WNYC, Pat mentioned the “cat’s-paw” fable of La Fontaine. As an attorney and an ailurophile, I might add that “cat’s paw” is the name of a legal theory of employer liability for discrimination. In a recent Supreme Court opinion, Justice Scalia explained the fable in footnote 1.

A: We’re ailurophiles (or cat lovers) ourselves, and we found your comment an interesting footnote to Pat’s discussion on the radio about feline expressions.

As Pat said on the show, a “cat’s-paw” (now often “catspaw,” but usually “cat’s paw” in employment law) is a dupe, someone used as a tool.

The term, first recorded in the mid-17th century, is an alteration of the earlier phrase “cat’s foot,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED explains that it’s a “reference to the fable or tale of a monkey (or a fox) using the foot or paw of a cat to rake roasted chestnuts out of the burning coals.”

The dictionary adds parenthetically that some versions of the story say the monkey belonged to Pope Julius II (1503-13). Depending on the version, the cat is either tricked or forced into letting the monkey use its paw.

The earliest citation in the OED for “cat’s-paw” is from a political pamphlet, Killing Is Murder, written by Michael Hawke in 1657: “These he useth as the Monkey did the Cat’s paw to scrape the nuts out of the fire.”

The earliest reference to a “cat’s foot” used in this sense comes from a 1623 translation of The Spanish Rogue, a picaresque novel by Mateo Alemán that was published in Spanish the year before.

The English version of the Alemán quotation: “To take the Cat by the foote, and therewith to rake the coales out of the Ouen.”

As for the fable that gave rise to these terms, it was “current in the sixteenth century, but varying considerably in details,” according to John S. Farmer’s Slang and Its Analogues (1890).

“The earliest printed version,” Farmer writes, “occurs in John Sambucus’ Emblemata (Plantin, Antwerp, 1564), where the sufferer is a dog, and not a cat. There is, however, a story of the same kind told … of Pope Julius II.”

Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) also notes that the monkey was said to have belonged to Pope Julius II.

And a contributor to the journal Notes and Queries wrote in 1884 that he had found an account written in 1600, stating “that the occurrence took place while the chamberlains of Julius II were waiting for the Pope to retire to rest, and that the monkey held the cat with his left arm and took the paw in his right.”

Pope or no pope, the definitive version of the tale is the one written by Jean de La Fontaine in the 17th century.

La Fontaine’s “Le Singe et le Chat” (“The Monkey and the Cat”) first appeared in a collection of fables published in 1679.

This version of the tale is less violent than some earlier ones, because La Fontaine’s cat is persuaded by flattery, not wrestled by force, into sticking a foot into the hot coals.

As the cat blisters his paws to claw the chestnuts out one by one, the monkey gobbles them up.

The footnote in Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion says La Fontaine’s fable was “conceived by Aesop.”

Though the idea has often been attributed to Aesop, we haven’t found any positive evidence of this. Perhaps Justice Scalia knows something we don’t.

We can’t close without explaining the etymology of “ailurophile,” which comes from the Greek roots ailouros (cat) and phile (one who loves).

Despite its ancient connections, the word is a relative newcomer, coined in the 20th century.

The OED’s first citation is from 1931, but a Google Books search turned up one from a 1927 issue of Scribner’s Magazine:

“You are really an ‘ailurophile,’ or ‘lover of cats.’ I think ailurophile is a beautiful word, is fluent, and rolls trippingly on the tongue with catlike fluency.”

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