“Cat’s paw” – meaning of this idiom

The idiom “a cat’s paw” means a person or persons (or even a country) that is being used by another to achieve an objective and especially if that objective is being achieved in a cynical or duplicitous manner.

It’s interesting that China appears to have accused the Australian government of acting as a “cat’s paw” for the US. But normally it is used, as I understand it, in relation to individual people such as a person using another to stir up trouble with a third party.

Trump saying thank you
Trump saying thank you! Image in public domain. I selected this image because the idiom a ‘cat’s paw’ is a human creation and it is being used politically by China.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Sadly, the idiom is a slight denigration of the domestic cat because it implies duplicitous behaviour. This reinforces a stereotype that the domestic cat is sly, tricky and unreliable. Some people do have misconceptions about the domestic cat often in relation to their character. Domestic cats are highly reliable, innocent creatures who wear their heart on their sleeve to use another metaphor. They are not sly and devious. I feel the need to defend the domestic cat as usual.

In the case of China and the US, I think the reference to a ‘cat’s paw’ is the fact that United States agriculture exports to China have boomed after Australia criticised China for their treatment of Muslims in their country. China reacted by restricting imports from Australia which in turn has resulted in enhanced exports from the US to China. That is my reading of the situation and how the idiom has been used in this instance.

An ‘idiom’ describes ‘a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words’ – Google. In other words, people use words that have no meaning in relation to the events described but through usage have come to encapsulate the events in a succinct phrase.

Note: Please see Jon’s comment below which adds to the page.


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Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

2 thoughts on ““Cat’s paw” – meaning of this idiom”

  1. I believe, but I could easily be wrong in this, that the phrase “cat’s paw” is very old. At least as old as Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck who were charlatans impersonating as Plantagenet princes who were actually dead, e.g. Richard III’s nephews e.g. the Princes in the Tower and the Earl of Warwick, as “cat’s paws” for the exiled Yorkists. I always assumed the term came from some cats when hunting, allegedly using one paw to get the quarry’s attention, or to distract, while striking with the other paw which the quarry is not looking at. This may be merely folklore and not a real cat behavior. I wouldn’t be surprised if the phrase was at least as old as Chaucer. It is supposed to have come from Aesop, and La Fontaine put this phrase in his story “The Monkey and the Cat” The origins of the phrase are murky. It is alleged that attribution to Aesop may or may not be due to La Fontaine’s story being included in 17th and 18th century collections of Aesop’s Fables. It appears it would take a good deal of research to disentangle all the contradictory assertions to find the true origins of the phrase.

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