Q: In a recent appearance on WNYC, you discussed the phrase “no room to swing a cat” and said its origin was not known. I believe it refers to the difficulty of swinging a cat-o’-nine-tails on the crowded deck of a Royal Navy warship in olden days.
A: Several other radio listeners, and many Internet references, suggest (or even insist) that the expression refers to the use of the cat-o’-nine-tails on British naval ships. But I haven’t found any authoritative sources that back this up.
In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for “swing a cat” comes 30 years before the earliest citation for “cat-o’-nine-tails” and 123 years before the use of the word “cat” as a short form of “cat-o’-nine-tails.” All this suggests that “swing a cat” was in use well before the word “cat” was used to mean a whip.
A likelier and perhaps more gruesome explanation lies in the use of cats in target practice during the 16th century. E. Cobham Brewer’s 1898 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says sometimes “two cats were swung by their tails over a rope.” At other times, according to the dictionary, a cat in a bag or a sack or a leather bottle “was swung to the bough of a tree.”
Shakespeare refers to the practice in Much Ado About Nothing: “If I do, hang me in a bottle like a Cat, and shoot at me; and he that hits me, let him be clapped on the shoulder, and called Adam.”
One final note. When Mark Twain used the phrase “swing a cat” in the 19th century in Innocents Abroad, he was obviously referring to a cat of the feline variety: “Notwithstanding all this furniture, there was still room to turn around in, but not to swing a cat in, at least with entire security to the cat.”