Cats Out of the Bag

Investigations of slang by the editor of the Random House Dictionary of American Slang

PALEONTOLOGISTS in Florida recently announced the discovery of a new species of saber-toothed cat -- the third such cat known to have lived in North America. The cat in question, unearthed from a sinkhole, is a million-year-old specimen that was built like a bear and was capable of reducing wild peccaries (among whose fossilized bones it was found) to Meow Mix quicker'n scat, as old-timers might put it. The new species does not yet have a name. Some might be disposed to regard it as a wampus cat, a hitherto fanciful member of the wildcat clan, to which campers attribute mysterious nocturnal growls and thuds. The inspiration for wampus cat seems to be catawampus, an old term for a remarkable or unruly individual, and, strange to say, originally an adverb similar in meaning to catty-(or kitty-or cater-) cornered.

Unlike their prehistoric cousins, the cats that prowl the savannas of slang are pretty well domesticated. The metaphor-minded may find it curious that slangy cat imagery has come into its own only during the past hundred years or so. "Suffering cats!" exclaims a character in Shakespeare in Love, anachronistically employing a twentieth-century interjectory phrase more usual in the form of Holy cats! or even Catfish! Seventeenth-century slangsters did refer to prostitutes as cats -- hence cathouse, "a brothel." Raining cats and dogs (originally dogs and polecats) dates from several decades later. This expression has prompted some far-fetched explanatory scenarios, including the idea that torrential rains used to send lots of dead animals floating down the gutters of London. No one really knows the expression's origin.

The same holds true for cat itself; it may derive from an untrackable Indo-European word that wound up in post-classical Latin as cattus (which also referred to weasels and stoats). Cicero and Caesar, of course, used the better-established feles (or felis). Scat! has lexicographers more or less stumped. The cunning suggestion that it comes from a peremptory Ssss! Cat! has garnered fervent adherents but stands on little evidence.

As noted, Florida's saber-toothed cat has been likened to a bear in build. As it happens, the word bearcat sprang to life as a popular name for neither a bear nor a cat but for the red panda. By 1910 it had become a slang reference to somebody energetic or fearsome or to something impressively appealing; hence the various high school and college teams around the country called the Bearcats. And don't forget the Stutz Bearcat, the classic motorcar first built in 1911 by Harry Stutz's Ideal Motor Car Company, of Indianapolis. Arguably America's most highly prized sports car, the rakish Bearcat bore the incidental distinction of being one of the last American-built automobiles to mount the steering wheel on the right.

Specialists who try to reconstruct the unwritten predecessors of English (and related languages) report that the modern bear ultimately originated as a Germanic euphemism meaning simply "the brown one," presumably on the speak-of-the-devil principle. As many people are aware, the teddy bear was named commercially in honor of a black bear that was spared by President Teddy Roosevelt on a disappointing hunting expedition in Mississippi in 1902. Teddy bear now also designates a gruff but soft-hearted, lovable, maybe even easily manipulated person, generally a man -- in other words, a real pussycat.

In the early 1920s America's youth decided that anything great or gratifying was the cat's meow -- or the cat's pajamas or even the bee's knees, phrases you can still hear on occasion. Cat meaning "a jazz man" or "any man" soon began to creep into jazz lingo -- introduced, they say, by the trumpeter and New Orleans native Louis Armstrong. It was combined with hep (or hip) to produce hepcat in the 1930s. There are romantics who hope that hepcat will turn out to be derived from the word hipikat, in the West African language Wolof; hipikat means, roughly, "eyes open." The likelihood that such a linguistic kinship exists, however, is vanishingly small.

J. E. Lighter is the editor of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Illustration by Craig Hopson.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 1999; Cats Out of the Bag - 99.06; Volume 283, No. 6; page 140.