Why are tabby cats called tabby cats?

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.

Tabby cat name

Tabby cat coats and silk. Photos copyright Helmi Flick.

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 (periodΒ 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.

Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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11 Responses

  1. Michael, i have photographed and written an article on the most amazing stray tabby cat of the Worli Fish market in Mumbai.The Link is :- http://my.opera.com/mittoo/blog/2013/01/05/radhe-rajesh-the-aristocratic-stray-cat-of-worli-fish-market-in-mumbai

    • Marc says:

      Interesting article and great cat Rudolph. He looks pretty big too and very regal. I hope he lives many more years happy and healthy.

  2. I had no idea! A great article. It makes sense.

  3. Hairless Cat says:

    Hi Michael,

    A Tabby is when a cat – regardless of coat pattern or genetic heritage – puts his paw on the space bar of your keyboard and the cursor advances 5 or more horizontal spaces. If your not careful to react quickly enough, the cursor could advance several vertical lines in a very short period of time.


    =^..^= Hairless Cat Girl =^..^=

    • Michael says:

      πŸ™‚ love that one. Never heard of it before and it is a very good idea.

      • Hairless Cat says:

        Hi Michael,

        Just an on-the-fly original by Hairless Cat Girl.

        If you put that one in your book of cat jokes be sure to mention me as the author if you don’t mind πŸ˜‰

        I liked your article – interesting bit of Tabby cat history.

        =^..^= Hairless Cat Girl =^..^=

        • Michael says:

          It would give me great pleasure to put that little gem of a cat joke in a book and credit you with it. Maybe we should have a page on cat jokes but I only know one at the moment πŸ˜‰

  4. Marc says:

    Great job depicting the connection Michael by the way. I really get it now and personally I find language and its history and roots to be very interesting.

    I never associated the swirly pattern with the sort of oil on water effect of reflective silk but i now see how similar the tabby coat is to that. Amazing really. I just love the red maine coon in the lower part of the picture. I think i have a bit of a thing for medium long haired orange tabby boys after my Red. He has a very similar swirl on his sides to the one depicted. He looked very much like that cat. I have always wondered where the word stems from and it is not suprising it comes from another language as do many words in the English language. Thats why English is such a rich and versatile language I suppose.

    The other word I wondered about is the word ‘moggy’. To a Slovenian this word makes a nice name and my ex has a boycat called Moggy. If you are not English this makes a very nice name for a cat – quite exotic sounding to slavic people – yet ironically it has another meaning altogether to an English person. Wrongly I would say since mixed breeds are the most beautiful and in many ways exotic but sadly moggy is like saying ordinary or boring.

    • Michael says:

      I exaggerated the watery silk effect to make the point but I think that is fair. The explanation of the development of the word tabby makes sense and sounds correct. The red Maine Coon is absolutely gorgeous. I wasn’t there when he/she was photographed. But I did meet some amazing looking cats when I visited Helmi. Cats I would never get near to normally.

      I’ll see if I can do a post on “moggie”. The answer might be too short to fill a article. I may have done a page already but forgotten.

  5. Ruth aka Kattaddorra says:

    It’s interesting too that the gene for the tabby pattern can be found in all domestic cats and sometimes in the sunlight we can actually see the tabby markings on our two black and white cats.

    • Michael says:

      Thanks for that Ruth. I didn’t get that point. It makes sense since the African wildcat has a tabby coat and all domestic cats have evolved from that wildcat.

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