Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – origin and history

This is a page on the origin and history of the saying “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. I am very thankful to a French citizen, who speaks and writes English better than many Brits, Pascal Tréguer, who completed a thorough breakdown of the saying, which makes it much easy for me to write the page. Thank you Mr Tréguer.

As you probably know, the saying means that a person is agitated as if they are like a cat on a hot tin roof 😉. You might use the saying as follows: “My neighbour behaved like a cat on a hot tin roof when she realised that she had to go to the police station”.

Tennessee Williams's Cat Eye Hot Tin Roof
Tennessee Williams’s Cat Eye Hot Tin Roof. Image: book cover.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

It appears that the phrase evolved out of a quite similar saying which was first used by the English naturalist and theologian John Ray (1627-1705) in his A Collection of English Proverbs, Second Edition (1678):

To go like a cat upon a hot bake stone.

As you might guess, a “bake stone” was or is a flat stone or slate on which you bake food such as cakes.

This version of the phrase remained in use until the late 19th century as can be seen in a quote from an article titled Helps published in The Nottinghamshire Guardian of April 25, 1879,

I came off the celery quarter the other day with a load of Old England on my boots. There was no scraper near. I did not bless its absence, you may be sure. I had to tread for about a hundred yards sharply and gently, “like a cat on a hot bakestone,” as they say in Lancashire, before I could get rid of it.

The phrase “bake stone” can also be written “bakestone” and a variation on this is seen in the word “backstone” when it is was used in an earlier version of this well-known saying. On this occasion the phrase is seen in The Sporting Magazine or Monthly Calendar of the Transactions of the Turf, the Chase and Every Other Diversion Interesting to the Man of Pleasure, Enterprise & Spirit (London) of April 1820 article entitled A New System of Shoeing Horses. Here is the use of the phrase:

The horse could not endure the concussion upon the roads, became sore in his heels and frogs, and went, as Bracken has it, ‘like a cat upon a backstone’.

An earlier version also included the word “bricks”. The phrase would read “a cat on hot bricks”. This was used in Passages from the Diary of the Late Dolly Duster which was published in Fraser’s Magazine for Town & Country (London) 1838.

Mr Tréguer says that the earliest use of the American-English version of the saying in which “tin roof” substituted the other hot items mentioned above, is to be found in Troop Number 13 Wins Big Battle: Boy Scouts of the City Collect Ten Tons of Paper and are Still Busy, published in the Daily Gazette-Times (Corvallis, Oregon) of 6th June 1921, as follows:

All day long Scout Executive Cornwell was kept busy as a cat on a hot tin roof weighing out bundles of paper which had been collected by the indefatigable scouts.

Tennessee Williams’s famous play: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which was first performed in 1955, includes the saying as follows:

– Margaret: Y’know what I feel like, Brick?
I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof!
– Brick: Then jump off the roof, jump off it, cats can jump off roofs and land on their four feet uninjured!
– Margaret: Oh, yes!
– Brick: Do it!—fo’ God’s sake, do it…
– Margaret: Do what?
– Brick: Take a lover!
– Margaret: I can’t see a man but you! Even with my eyes closed, I just see you! Why don’t you get ugly, Brick, why don’t you please get fat or ugly or something so I could stand it?

The play was made into a film in 1958 directed by Richard Brooks. The play was adapted by Richard Brooks and James Poe. The film starred Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives, Judith Anderson, Jack Carson and Madeleine Sherwood. When I hear the saying ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ I always think of the film. It’s a great film. It was the third highest-grossing film of 1958.

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