English English language Etymology Expression Uncategorized

When a cat has your tongue

[Note: An updated post on this topic appeared on Feb. 4, 2011.]

Q: Do you have any information on the origin of the phrase “cat got your tongue”?

A: The expression (it’s generally in the form of a question) is something one says to a shy or silent person in an effort to get the tongue-tied one to speak.

Why a cat? Nobody seems to know for sure where “cat got your tongue” comes from, but, as usual, there are lots of spurious etymologies floating around the Internet.

We’ve seen no evidence to prove any of these theories, which involve the cat-o’-nine-tails of seafaring days, ancient Middle Eastern torture techniques, liars’ tongues being ripped out and fed to cats, and so on.

Evan Morris, on his Word Detective website, notes that we’ve been concocting feline myths and metaphors ever since a homo sapien first opened the cave door to a yowling cat.

“The most surprising thing about ‘cat got your tongue’ may be its relatively recent vintage,” Morris notes. “While it certainly sounds as if it must have been dreamt up back in the Middle Ages, the earliest written example listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1911.”

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