The origins of are quite difficult to trace actually and I am not sure I have the answer but here goes. I have included the answers of other people as well for comparison. It is not unusual for the origin of words to be clouded in the mists of time and sometimes it can be impossible to actually pinpoint the origin.
Here are the possible beginnings of the use of the word “copycat”. It possibly kicked off with the words of William Shakespeare in 1604 1605, as you can see in the extract, below.
“A pox upon him for me, he is more and more a cat”. It comes from Shakespeare’s play, All’s Well That Ends Well, written between 1604 and 1605.
What does the person saying this mean in the play? It either means that the person saying the phrase is insulting a person as he does not like cats or he is describing the person as cat-like in that he is able to land on his feet whatever is thrown at him. The modern description is “teflon man” or some such phrase.
We know that cats have an excellent self-righting method that is utilised when he or she falls (see cat falling).
Both of these meanings have no direct connection to the modern meaning which is that a person or persons copy someone’s actions. A typical example would be “copycat killing” in which a criminal kills someone in the same manner as another person.
However, if a person is like a cat, they could be said to be copying a cat’s actions. This may have then evolved into the phrase “copycat” over the ensuing hundreds of years.
It was used two generations before 1896 as it was referred to in The Country of Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett of 1896:
“”I ain’t heard of a copy-cat this great many years..’twas a favorite term o’ my grandmother’s”
One website states that the origin of the idiom “copycat” comes from the US state of Maine in the 19th century. They say that Constance Carrie Harrison used the word in 1887 memoir “Bar Harbor” as follows: “Our boys say you are a copy cat, if you write in anything that’s been already printed”. You can see that at that time it was two words rather than either a hyphenated word or one word.
Well, my assessment places the origin to 200 years before that 😊.
The Etymonline.com website says that the word began in 1884 or a generation older from copy + cat. I don’t understand that at all 🤔.
The Slate Magazine refers to the Constance Carrie Harrison theory.
My theory in referring to William Shakespeare puts it back a lot further and before the actual word was created. What I’m saying is that the word evolved out of the concept of a person behaving like a cat as referred to by Shakespeare. It was a derogatory term in line with stray cats seen as pests in that era.
Update: this page has been refreshed, added-to and republished as at January 12, 2022.