In answering the question, “Why are tabby cats called tabby cats?” we have to recognise the fact that we are writing about an English word. Tabby cat are just about everywhere on the planet. Where there are cats, there are tabby cats. How do other languages describe the tabby cat?
As the first ever domestic cat was a tabby cat – a domesticated African/Asian wildcat it is no surprise that the origin on the the word “tabby” goes back a long way and comes from the Middle East which is the general area where the first domestication of the wildcat took place. The exact area is centered on Syria and Jordan.
Studying the origins and history of a word is called Etymology. The word tabby can be traced back Baghdad, Iraq. We are told that, in times gone by, a neighborhood of Baghdad was called Attabiy. In this area of Baghdad merchants sold silk. I don’t have a date but apparently it was the first or one of the first places to sell “a rich, watered silk”. Incidentally, the name Attabiy derives from the name of a prince called “Attab”.
In France, the word for a watered silk evolved into “tabis” which was derived from middle French (period 1340 to 1611) atabis which in turn evolved from the Arabic attabiya which comes from the Baghdad neighborhood described above.
The English word “tabby” then evolved or its origins are in the French word “tabis”. Tabis became tabby.
It seems the history of the word “tabby” somewhat follows the history of the domestication of the wildcat. No surprise there, then.
- The picture is an attempt to put into an image what words cannot. It is far from perfect but I hope it helps visitors make a connection between silk and the tabby cat coat.
- The etymology comes from Wikipedia. The pictures are copyright Helmi Flick.