What's in a Word | All Blogs


A diplomatic cat-astrophe

By Debra Dobbins

Syndicated cartoonist Paresh Nath relies on a common idiomatic expression in English to make his point about the latest Wikileaks revelations. To let the cat out of the bag means to divulge a secret.

The expression is widespread, but its origins are murky. Some researchers say it may have started in the marketplaces of the Middle Ages during times when meat was in short supply. Shoppers were warned not buy a cat in a bag or sack. The rumor was that an unscrupulous seller might substitute a cat for a pig to an unwitting buyer. A buyer who did not check the bag would take home something inedible.

Other historians, though, think that people in the Middle Ages surely could not have been that gullible. A cat’s anatomy, after all, is different than that of a pig, and the two animals certainly make different sounds. Perhaps shoppers who were both blind and deaf could have been tricked this way, but not the average person.

Another theory comes from the practice of keeping a “cat o’ nine tails” in a bag aboard a sailing ship. Some historians say it was used to punish disobedient sailors in the British Royal Navy; other historians claim that slaves, not sailors, were punished with it.

At any rate, a “cat o’ nine tails” was a whip composed of three ropes. Each rope had three smaller ones braided into it. When the braids came loose, the unfortunate soul at the receiving end of the whip would endure the pain of nine ropes.

If sailors knew they risked a flogging for planning a mutiny, they would want to keep their mutiny plans secret. So, if the secret and its holders were revealed, the next step would be “letting the cat out of the bag.” Perhaps over time, some historians claim, the phrase went from meaning punishment to revealing a secret.

Other historians discount this theory, though, because other references to a “cat in the bag” came before the nautical reference. Still others say claim that the origin was simpler and just relied on common sense. If a cat is let out of a bag, it will go wherever it wants, rather like a secret once someone discloses it.

I learned much of this information by checking out the sources below. For more details on this phrase, go to:

www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/let-the-cat-out-of-the-bag.html

www.snopes.com/language/phrases/catbag.asp

The cartoon’s creator, by the way, is Paresh Nath, the chief cartoonist for India's National Herald. Cagle Cartoons syndicates his work in the United States. His cartoon is a reminder that millions of people worldwide have learned English well enough to understand its idioms, or phrases that mean something different than their literal meanings.

To read the full story on the release of sensitive files, check out the front page of today’s print edition or e-edition of The Daily Sentinel.

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