Cat Got Your Tongue?

Beware o' the CatJunie B. Jones is a clever and friendly five- or six-year old girl featured as the main character in a series of children’s books. They are very entertaining and playful. While reading  Junie B. Jone and Some Sneaky Peeky Spying  to my daughter the other night, Junie’s grandma asks Junie if the cat’s got her tongue. The phrase, typically posed as a question, is a way of asking “Why aren’t you answering? Why are you speaking?” in calling out the suspiciousness of someone’s silence. As a kindergartner, Junie does not understand what this idiom means. Of course, it caused me to ask where the expression came from.

As with many idioms, there is not a definitive answer. Some of the more popular ideas are rather colorful. For example, one thought is that it comes from the Middle Eastern practice hundreds of years ago of cutting out a liar’s tongue and feeding it to the king’s cat.

Another suggestion is that it relates to the maritime punishment of beating someone with a “cat-o’-nine-tails” whip, which could certainly leave a person temporarily incapacitated and unable to speak.

A less common explanation relates to the fact that, in the Middle Ages, when witches were feared and witch hunts were common. Cats were often associated with witches. The idea is that if you saw someone you suspected of being a witch or practicing witchcraft, the witch’s cat would “steal” or otherwise control your tongue so you could not report her to the authorities.

Interestingly, all of these explanations link to beliefs or behavior from very long ago. However, it is thought the expression came into popular use during the 1800s, and it first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1911. Given this, my money says it’s from seafaring days.

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  1. #1 by ellengrif on 08.01.12 - 10:07

    What a coincidence! I just found a Junie B book and started reading it to my grand daughter on Sunday. She, age 4 1/2, also loves the expression “Cat got your tongue?”

    • #2 by donr0217 on 08.01.12 - 14:32

      If it’s your first Junie B. Jones book, I am quite confident it won’t be your last. My daughter, as well as my son (both age 6), love them, and my wife and I are certain to get some laughs also. Some parents may take issue with the poor grammar, but the books are written from Junie’s perspective and that’s a big part of the charm of the book and the character IMHO. It makes her believable, and really don’t think a few books are going to cause a long-term language issue. I really like the way she refers to her teacher as just “Mrs.” and the headmaster as just “Principal,” as though those are their actual names. Enjoy.

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