Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Swinging a Cat

We've all heard the expression: There just isn't enough room to swing a cat.

Over at Flopping Aces, we see the idiom being used and misunderstood.
Hume’s comment was, “It’s hard to swing a cat in Congress without hitting someone who is running for President.” I had an image of Brit grabbing Felix the cat fresh from a commercial, picking him up by the tail, and while the cat hissed, screamed, and clawed like mad, I envisioned the stinging furball getting smacked into the faces of different Presidential candidates. I had to laugh, but it was when I tried to imagine the sound that I really lost it. All I can say is Maker’s Mark hurts when it goes through your nose.
The expression doesn't refer to a real live breathing cat.

We're talking about the cat o' nine tails, a flogging device used in the British Navy to administer punishment. It was a short handled device with mulitiple lashes. Those lashes were sometimes tipped with knots, or lead balls. The device was swung, applying the lash to the back of the miscreant. It was not a pleasant punishment.

If you didn't have room to swing a cat, you were in a small room. If you couldn't swing a cat without hitting other people, the room was plainly crowded.

As interesting as it is to envision a person swinging a screetching feline, the idiom describes something else entirely.

I thought I'd clear that up.


HollyB said...

Thank you, PawPaw, I did not know that one.

Anonymous said...

I'll wager Christians know what a "cat" is.

Gandalin said...


For the sake of completeness.

The Wikipedia article on the cat o' nine tails offers a different version:

"The common phrase, "not enough room to swing a cat," is often claimed to refers to a cat o' nine tails. However, there are examples of this usage that predate the use of the cat o' nine tails (ie before 1695) and the phrase more likely refers to the practice of putting a live cat in a leather bottle and setting it swinging as a target for marksmen. For example, Shakespeare, in Much Ado About Nothing, writes: "Hang me in a bottle like a cat, and shoot at me." This has been the subject of correspondence in The Times in January 2007"

And here's the letter from the Times:

"Feline facts

Sir, If you believe that the cat in the saying “no room to swing a cat” is the cat-o-nine-tails, rather than a live moggy (“No room to swing a cat (or a cue) in the 12ft x 6ft flat for sale at £170,000”, Jan 22), you have been deceived by the notorious underground folk-etymology guerrilla group CANOE (the Campaign to Attribute Nautical Origins to Everything).
The first known use of this phrase is in 1665, when it was a charming English custom to hang a live cat in a leather bottle and set it swinging as a target for marksmen. It is much more likely that the phrase refers to this practice, which Shakespeare refers to in Much Ado About Nothing: “Hang me in a bottle like a cat, and shoot at me.”

The term “cat-o’-nine-tails” for a whip is not recorded until 1695, and there is no authenticated instance of “no room to swing a cat” being used with this meaning during the entire existence of the sailing navy. (And actually no reason why it should have been; naval floggings were always carried out on deck, for the edification of the rest of the crew.)

Gillingham, Kent"


Pawpaw said...


Well, I will be damned. Thanks for the information.

Anonymous said...

Somehow the image of PawPaw swing Felix the Cat around in the Senate or House brings a smile to my face...


Gandalin said...


Actually it is I who must thank you for sending me to the sources. The origins of some of these old expressions make for some interesting reflections.

To tell you the truth, I have always believed in the nautical explanations for the expressions "the Devil to pay and no pitch hot" and "between the Devil and the deep blue sea." But it seems there are those who would doubt them, too.

To be sure, the swabbies of old had a very colorful way of expressing themselves. Probably everbody had a colorful way of expressing himself way back then. Almost everybody who could read had read the King James Bible cover-to-cover, and more than once. And many of them had read Shakespeare. Now those two sources will provide you with colorful and dramatic English expressions till the cows come home.

Thank you for your always interesting and insightful writings.