Q: I’ve heard that the expression “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” refers to cleaning a catfish, not skinning a cat. Is this true?
A: No, the expression is not about skinning catfish (though they are in fact cleaned by skinning, not scaling).
The “cat” here is indeed of the feline variety, but the phrase isn’t intended literally. It didn’t come from real people sitting around sharing tips about how to skin real cats.
Cats appear in many hyperbolic expressions—perhaps because they make for catchy language. We’ve written on our blog about a few other caticisms, including the “cat’s pajamas” (or “cat’s meow”), a “cat’s-paw,” “she is the cat’s mother,” “let the cat out of the bag,” and “cat got your tongue?” In fact, the word in some catty phrases is purely accidental, as with “catty (or kitty) corner.”
But back to skinning cats. As you might imagine, a dead cat is not much use and there’s little value in its fur. So how did the notion of skinning one creep into a common English expression?
The story begins in the 17th century with another phrase, “to skin a flint,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED says this was the first of several “hyperbolical phrases” about skinning things—a group of expressions that denoted exaggerated stinginess “or the willingness to go to extreme lengths to save or gain something.”
As the dictionary explains, “to skin a flint” was “a hyperbolical exemplification of avarice,” and “skinning a flint” was a figurative usage meaning “parsimonious saving.” A flint is a piece of hard stone used to make sparks, and of course it has no skin.
(A similar notion is found in the word “cheeseparing,” a 16th-century noun that meant a scrap pared from the rind of a cheese—something that’s useless or barely edible. Later, “cheeseparing” was used only figuratively, to mean economizing with small, stingy cuts.)
This is the OED’s earliest example of the “flint” phrase: “Jones was one Would Skinne a Flint, and eat him when h’had done” (from a satirical poem, The Legend of Captaine Jones, by David Lloyd, 1656).
Citations in the dictionary show that the “flint” version survived into the 20th century, as in this example from Poems (1917), by Edward Thomas: “For a farthing she’d skin a flint and spoil a knife / Worth sixpence skinning it.”
And, yes, this is where “skinflint” comes from, a late-17th-century noun defined in the OED as “a person who would ‘skin a flint’ to save or gain a thing, esp. money; a mean or avaricious person; a miser.”
In the 19th century, other versions of the “skin” phrase began appearing. A miser, seeing to get the last atom of use out of a useless thing, would “skin a louse” (1803), “skin a flea … for its hide or tallow” (1819), and finally “skin a cat.”
Here’s the earliest “cat” version in the OED: “I was … brought up amongst fellows would skin a cat” (from Davenport Dunn, 1859, by the Irish novelist Charles James Lever).
We found this parsimonious example in a travel guide: “A certain American once said, that to obtain money a Natalian would skin a cat” (South Africa: A Sketch Book, 1884, by James Stanley Little).
Meanwhile, the notion of skinning cats underwent a change in American usage. A new expression, “there is more than one way to skin a cat” (and variants) came to mean “there is more than one means of achieving a given aim,” the OED says.
This is the earliest example we’ve found: “At any rate, thought I, there’s more than one way to skin a cat” (from The New York Transcript, reprinted in The Indiana American, Brookville, Jan. 15, 1836).
The question here is whether the miserly expression “to skin a cat” was the direct source of “more than one way to skin a cat.” There’s no way to know for sure, but our guess is that the first one influenced the second.
We say this because similar proverbs of the “more than one way” variety—and all meaning that there are different means of accomplishing the same goal—existed before cats became part of the expression.
Perhaps the earliest such proverb was “there are more ways to the wood than one,” dating from the early 16th century. This version (we’ve also seen “more ways to the mill”) has appeared in published writing in every century since then, including our own.
Meanwhile, dogs began showing up in 17th-century versions of the expression, as in these examples (from our own searches as well as OED citations): “ther’s more wayes to kill a Dog then hanging of him” (1640); “there are more ways of killing a dog than choking him with butter” (1829); “there are more ways than one to kill a dog” (1835).
Lo and behold, cats also crept into the expression: “There is more than one way to kill a cat” (1833); “There’s more ways of killing a cat than hanging of her” (1843); “More ways of killing a cat than choking her with cream” (1855), and so on.
What we suspect is that the appearance of cats in those various “more than one way” expressions evoked that earlier phrase about extreme stinginess, with misers so cheap they would “skin a flint” or “skin a flea” or “skin a cat.”
It seems reasonable that the two “cat” expressions were conflated. And that might explain how “more than one way to skin a cat” appeared in the 1830s.