[Note: This post was updated on April 28, 2020.]
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?
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.”
The OED’s earliest citation is from the May 25, 1878, issue of the journal Notes and Queries. We’ll expand the quotation here:
“I cannot find any mention of this saying … in books of proverbial expressions, but it is one with which I have been acquainted from my youth. … For example, a little girl runs in to her mother, and says excitedly, ‘O mamma, we met her just as we were coming home from our walk, and she was so glad to see us!’ Upon which the mamma says, ‘Who is “she”? the cat’s mother?’ ” Thus, adds the writer, Cuthbert Bede, the expression is used “to enjoin perspicuity of speech and precision in reference.”
In our own searches, we found an earlier example, from a burlesque play in which the characters are people, fairies, and cats. Here’s the exchange:
“Prince Lardi-Dardi: Who’s she? … Miss McTabby: His nurse would tell him, ‘she’ is the cat’s mother; / A lesson learnt by every little baby” (The White Cat! by Francis Cowley Burnand, first produced Dec. 26, 1870).
We’ve also found a few examples, from the late 1870s and afterwards, of “the cat’s grandmother” and “the cat’s aunt” used in the same way—as a retort to someone who uses “she” in uncertain reference.
Here are some later examples of the reprimand, cited in the the OED:
“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).
“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).
“ ‘Who’s she, the cat’s mother?’ Lindy said, not looking up from the magazine” (from Helen Cross’s My Summer of Love, a novel set in Yorkshire in the 1980s and published in 2001).
Despite that 21st-century example, we suspect that this nostalgic old expression is one more nicety of language that’s gradually fading away.
[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.”]
Check out our books about the English language