Cat Got Your Tongue

Cat Got Your Tongue

by Michael
(London, UK)

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This is about the old idiom, 'cat got your tongue'. I used to hear this years ago but rarely now. How was it used? Well, lets say you are a child and lets say your mother (it's always your mother) is accusing you of doing something naughty. You shake your head looking a bit bewildered and guilty, but you say nothing because what can you say? She might say something like, 'Come on Charlie, what happened then, cat got your tongue. Is that it?..Speak up boy!'

It means something is making you silent when you should not be. It might not be because you are feeling guilty. It could be for any reason including shyness that is causing the silence. But in my experience it would usually be used under slightly difficult circumstances. This is to be expected as the person who is the recipient of the phrase should be speaking so there is a question mark as to why he or she isn't.

So where does this idiom come from? An idiom by the way is a combination of words that does not make sense on the face of it but has a special meaning outside of the usual meaning of the individual words.

There is no clean answer as to where the phrase originated but my gut feel is that it comes from the days of the cat of nine tails; the nasty 9 tailed whip that was used to flog miscreant sailors in the British navy in the 1700s and 1800s. The fear of being flogged would render the sailor mute - understandably. This is an answer that really makes sense.

Incidentally, a variation on this is that when an officer of a ship told a sailor something in confidence he was reminded that he would be flogged with the cat of nine tails (cat o'nine tails) if he spoke about it. I prefer the former explanation.

Other less believable stories are:

  • That it comes from the Middle East. Liars were punished by the removal of their tongue which was fed to the King's cat. This feels made up to me.
  • Witches familiars (usually black cats) during the time that people believed in witches in the Middle Ages, would steal your voice to stop you divulging the whereabouts of a witch or disclosing that a person was a so called witch. Once again this seems fanciful.

Photos for montage:

Lady with blue tongue (original photo): by NathanReed (Flickr)
Cat with fangs (original photo): by kevindooley (Flickr)

From  Cat Got Your Tongue to Cat History

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Cat Got Your Tongue

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Apr 24, 2010 Hi Rudolph
by: Michael

Thanks for your comment, which I value.

Apr 14, 2010 Cat got your tongue
by: Rudolph.A.Furtado

Having sailed the 7 seas intermittently for 25 years as a "Marine engineer" i also agree that the idiom must have originated as a "Sea-faring slang".

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