English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage

Why is “she” the cat’s mother?

Q: You must be catted out by now, but I have one more feline inquiry. My mother would not allow us children to refer to her in the third person while she was in front of us. Any infraction of this rule would cause her immediate response: “Don’t call me ‘she’!  ‘She’ is the cat’s mother!” What the heck does this mean?

A: Well, we’ve answered two catty questions lately—one in March and one in April—so why not one more?

There was a time when a child could get a scolding for using the word “she” instead of a name, especially if the “she” (often an older person, like one’s mother) was present.

And the scolding might have consisted of  “Who’s ‘she’—the cat’s mother?”

We can see why “she” is sometimes rude. And we can see why “she” might be equated with “the cat’s mother.”

After all, a cat’s mother is probably some nameless, unknown feline. But people have names—“Mom,” for example.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the catchphrase “Who’s she—the cat’s mother?” (or some variation thereof) is “said to one (esp. a child) who uses the pronoun of the third person singular impolitely or with inadequate reference.”

Here are the OED’s citations for such reprimands, which date from the late 19th century:

“Don’t call your mamma ‘she.’ ‘She’ is a cat” (from The Beth Book, by Frances Macfall, writing as Sarah Grand, 1897).

“ ‘Who’s She?’ demanded Nurse. ‘She’s the cat’s
mother’ ” (from Compton Mackenzie’s novel Sinister Street, 1913).

“ ‘She said so.’ Jane looked superior. ‘She, my boy, is the cat’s mother’ ” (from The Painted Garden, by Noel Streatfeild, 1949).

“To one who keeps saying ‘she’ in an impolite manner the reproof is: ‘Who’s she, the cat’s mother?’ ” (from The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, by Iona and Peter Opie, 1959).

“Who’s she? The cat’s grandmother?” (from Nanny Says, by Sir Hugh Casson and Joyce Grenfell, 1972).

Is all this merely quaint nostalgia by now, or do parents still reprimand their children for using “she” impolitely? Our guess is that this is one more nicety of language that’s going by the wayside.

[Note: A reader wrote us on Dec. 2, 2015, to say the “cat’s mother” reprimand is alive and well in his family. “My wife is using it on our child as her Mom did unto her,” he said. “In our household, it is being handed down to the next generation as I type.”]

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