Has your cat been let out of the bag, or did it get your tongue? Or perhaps you’re trying to herd the cats that rained with the dogs.
Cat idioms and sayings about cats have been a part of our language for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Some of them are funny, some are strange, some have interesting origins, and some have been repeated so many times for so many years that no one even knows where they came from anymore!
We’ve gathered our favorite sayings about cats — and you may be surprised by what they really mean!
1. “Curiosity killed the cat.”
Usage: “Being too inquisitive can get you into trouble.”
Origin: All cat parents know that a curious kitty can end up in some strange situations! Perhaps the single most popular cat idiom in the entire English language, “Curiosity killed the cat” has a long history, which includes a swapping of both words and meaning.
The first written usage of the idiom “Care killed the cat,” was in 1598, with “care” at the time meaning “worrying” or “fretting.” So, one might have said “Care killed the cat” to imply “Don’t worry,” or “Stress isn’t good for you.” (Perhaps cats of the time were especially stressed?)
In the mid-to-late 1800s, the phrase “Curiosity killed the cat” first appeared, changing the meaning of the idiom to, “Inquisitiveness/overstepping can invite harm upon yourself.” For a while, both phrases were in use, until the “curiosity” version won out.
Finally, a rejoinder was added to the phrase in 1900 or so. If someone told you, “Curiosity killed the cat,” as a warning against snooping, you could reply with, “But satisfaction brought it back.”
This rejoinder references the ages-old belief that cats can resurrect or reincarnate (for a total of nine lives). It also alters the meaning of the idiom, so that the entire phrase, “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back,” can be interpreted as, “Being too inquisitive can get you into trouble — but uncovering the truth is worth the consequences.”
2. “The cat’s out of the bag.”
Usage: “The secret has been revealed.”
Origin: This idiom has been in use since at least the 1700s, if not earlier, and its origin is unclear.
One proposed explanation is that it refers to duplicitous vendors from the Medieval ages, who would sell small livestock like piglets in sacks — but might, supposedly, swap in a less-valuable cat instead. Once the buyer got home, they’d open the bag and the “secret” of the vendor’s ploy would be revealed. However, there’s no evidence that such a con was commonplace (also, it would be hard to mistake a meowing cat for a squealing piglet!).
Most likely, there was never a literal cat in a literal bag. This idiom is simply an apt illustration of what it feels like to accidentally reveal a scandalous secret. A cat leaping unexpectedly out of an opened bag would be startling and explosive, and the frantic cat would be impossible to re-contain once freed — much like a juicy secret!
3. “Cat got your tongue?”
Usage: “Why aren’t you saying anything?”
Origin: Like many of the strangest idioms, it’s unclear where this phrase originated from.
Many explanations have been proposed, from sailors being silenced by a flogging from the cat o’nine tails, to Medieval witches sending their cat familiars to steal people’s power of speech, to Ancient Egyptians supposedly cutting off the tongues of liars and feeding said tongues to the royal cats. However, none of these origins have any evidence behind them.
Though this idiom has been in use for hundreds of years, we will likely never know how or why the proverbial cat got the proverbial tongue!
4. “It’s raining cats and dogs!”
Usage: “This rainstorm is severe!”
Origin: The true origin of this colorful phrase has sadly been lost to time. Dogs and cats have been associated with heavy weather since at least the 1590s or even earlier!
Several possible explanations have been proposed for this idiom (such as a mythological origin, or a mispronunciation of a word from another language) but none of the theories have any real evidence behind them. This idiom is likely just a funny image!
5. “It’s like herding cats.”
Usage: “It’s a difficult or nearly impossible task.”
Origin: This succinct idiom is elegantly self-explanatory: Trying to herd cats like you would herd sheep or cattle would be a frustrating and futile endeavor!
Unlike many idioms, this one has a very recent origin, and can be pinpointed to a line in the 1979 movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The phrase became popular very quickly, thanks to its vivid imagery.
The company EDS leaned into the ridiculousness of literally herding cats with this humorous commercial.
6. “He’s jumpier than a cat on a hot tin roof.”
Usage: “He’s skittish and on edge.”
Origin: This idiom is one of many Southern sayings in which a person or situation is “[something]-er than [an animal] in [a given circumstance].” (For example, a summer day may be “hotter than a squirrel in a forest fire.”)
This feline-featured phrase may be the modern version of a similar idiom from 1600s England, “like a cat on a hot bake-stone,” which over time became “like a cat on hot bricks.” (Although, the original idiom implied being nimble or light-footed rather than anxious).
Eventually, the 1955 play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof popularized the tin roof over bricks or bake-stones or other hot surfaces a cat could possibly be on.
7. “He’s looking like the cat that swallowed the canary.”
Usage: “He’s looking very smug and pleased with himself.”
Origin: This idiom seems to have originated sometime in the mid-1800s, along with its sister phrase, “Like the cat that got the cream.”
Whether it’s cream or canaries, every cat parent is familiar with the self-satisfied expression of a cat that ate or got into something they weren’t supposed to!
8. “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.”
Usage: “When authority figures are absent, their underlings will slack off.”
Origin: This is a surprisingly ancient saying, originating from the Latin phrase, “When the cat falls asleep, the mouse leaves its hole, rejoicing.”
Thanks to this medieval Latin phrase, nearly every language in the world has a version of this idiom! A few of these fun variations include:
“Where there is no cat, the rat is king.” (French)
“When the cat goes away, the mice reign.” (Swahili)
“Without a cat, there is freedom for mice.” (Russian)
“When the cat is out of the house, the mice dance upon the table.” (German)
“When the cat is not here, the mice have a party,” or “When the cat is not here, the mice dance.” (Spanish)
9. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
Usage: “There are multiple methods to accomplish the same task.”
Origin: Thankfully, this idiom does not refer to skinning an actual cat! The “cat” in this phrase is actually a catfish, which needs to be skinned before it is cooked — and, apparently, there is more than one way to do so.
10. “There’s a dead cat on the line.”
Usage: “There’s something wrong with this situation,” or “There’s something suspicious going on.”
Origin: Like the above example, this idiom also refers to a catfish and not an actual feline. If there’s a dead cat(fish) on the (fishing) line, that means the fisherman hasn’t been checking his lines — an indication that something unfortunate may have happened to him.
11. “There’s not enough room to swing a cat.”
Usage: “This is a tightly confined space.”
Origin: This idiom is not about swinging a real cat! The “cat” in this idiom is the cat o’nine tails, a knotted whip that was once used to brutally flog disobedient sailors. The flogging took place on the deck of the ship, as the area belowdecks was too tightly confined — literally, there wasn’t enough room to swing the cat (o’nine tails).
12. “Let’s see which way the cat jumps.”
Usage: “Let’s wait for the situation to unfold further before we take action.”
Origin: This is yet another idiom where the “cat” in question is not a real cat.
This phrase refers to a popular yard game from the 1700s called “tip-cat,” in which players would strike a short piece of wood called the “cat.” Cautious players would wait to see which way the “cat” was moving before attempting to hit it.
13. “Sweeten the kitty.”
Usage: “Make the offer more attractive or enticing.”
Origin: The “kitty” in this idiom comes from gambling games, like faro or poker.
The pot or bank of the house could sometimes be called the “tiger” or “kitty,” so “to sweeten/fatten the kitty” meant to add money to the pot, thus increasing the potential payout.
14. “They’ll fight like Kilkenny cats.”
Usage: “They’ll fight until both of them are destroyed by each other.”
Origin: This idiom references a centuries-old story from the Irish town of Kilkenny, where two cats supposedly fought each other until both of them died. In some versions, the cats were tied together or thrown together in a pit by sadistic soldiers. The story often ended with the frantic felines leaving behind nothing but their tails.
It’s unclear if the tale of two cats fighting to the death has any factual basis, or is a metaphor for two human factions destroying each other, or is simply a bit of Irish blarney. In any case, the term “Kilkenny cats” was made especially popular by the 1867 limerick:
“There once were two cats of Kilkenny;
Each thought there was one cat too many.
So they fought and they fit,
And they scratched and they bit,
‘Till instead of two cats, there weren’t any!”
15. “It’s the cat’s pajamas!”
Usage: “It’s really cool!”
Origin: This idiom was born in the 1920s, along with many other colorful animal-based ways to describe something or someone as hip or cool.
During the Roaring Twenties, “cat” became slang for a man (hence terms like “cool cat” or “fat cat”). Pajamas were also becoming quite fashionable, especially ladies’ pajamas. So “the cat’s pajamas” may have been a way to combine two “cool” things at once, illustrating that whatever you are referring to is doubly cool!
That being said, it was popular in the 1920s to describe anything cool as “the [random animal]’s [random item/body part].” Of the many, many idioms invented at the time, only a few are still known today, including “the cat’s pajamas,” “the cat’s meow,” “the cat’s whiskers,” and “the bee’s knees.” Other long-forgotten idioms from the flapper era include “the monkey’s eyebrows,” “the clam’s garter,” and “the snake’s hips.”
16. “Who is going to bell the cat?”
Usage: “Who would volunteer to do something so dangerous?”
Origin: This idiom originates from a centuries-old fable, often attributed to Aesop, about a group of mice who come together to discuss the housecat that has been hunting them. A plan is made to hang a bell around the cat’s neck to warn of its approach; but none of the mice are willing to volunteer for such a risky mission.
“To bell the cat” therefore means, “to undertake a dangerous and borderline impossible task, for the common good.” The question, “Yeah, but who is going to bell the cat?” is asked to say, “No one will be willing to do that.”
17. “She’ll have kittens!”
Usage: “She’ll be very upset!”
Origin: The origins of this idiom are hard to trace. Supposedly, it comes from a centuries-old Scottish belief that a witch can curse a pregnancy, turning an unborn child into a litter of rambunctious kittens instead — which would cause the unlucky mother to be (understandably) alarmed and upset!
18. “He’s grinning like a Cheshire cat.”
Usage: “He’s grinning broadly.”
Origin: Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland features a character called “The Cheshire Cat” who grins smugly and cryptically — but Carroll’s mischievous character was a reference to a phrase already well-known in 1865, not the origin of it.
This idiom has existed since at least the 1700s, and its true origin is unclear. The town of Cheshire in England is famous for its cheese and other dairy products, so perhaps it was assumed that the cats of that town would have access to a lot of cream or cheese-stealing mice to grin about.
19. “A cat in gloves catches no mice.”
Usage: “Being too polite and accommodating can prevent you from accomplishing your goals.”
Origin: This clever idiom was popularized by Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac. He may have picked it up in France, as the French saying, “A gloved cat will never mouse well,” has been in use since Medieval times.
20. “All cats are gray in the dark.”
Usage: “What you don’t know won’t hurt you,” or “It’s all the same thing anyway.”
Origin: This idiom is a roundabout way of saying that if you’re ‘in the dark’ and don’t know much about a situation, the details don’t matter. (It can also be used in a more literal and risque way in reference to a potential romantic partner, implying that their physical appearance will be unimportant once the lights are out.)
Benjamin Franklin is potentially responsible for introducing this idiom to English. He used “All cats are gray in the dark,” in one of his letters, but he likely picked it up in France, where similar idioms (“At night, all cats are gray” or “When all candles be out, all cats are gray”) have been around since Medieval times.
There’s no question that our kitties keep every day interesting with their antics, and that their big personalities have inspired some vivid imagery.
Now that you know the origins behind your favorite cat idioms (and learned a few new ones), you’ll have plenty of feline-featured phrases to enhance your vocabulary with kitty-centric sayings!