Curiosity Killed The Cat
You can see the first use of the precursor to the phrase, “Curiosity killed the cat” in Ben Jonson’s play, Every Man in His Humour, 1598. The relevant section is published above.
“Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.” You can see these words towards the bottom of the main block of text in the image. This text is from an 1828 book, incientally. The words and meaning were completely different to the modern version.
Shakespeare was an actor in this play by Ben Jonson. When Spakepeare wrote his play “Much Ado About Nothing” he reused the phrase – see below. His play was written shortly after Ben Johnson’s – ever an eye on good material, it seems!
In 1598 the phrase meant what it sounds like it should mean, namely that when we have lots of cares and worries we shorten our lives. I wonder why Ben Johnson chose the humble domestic/feral cat through which to express that sentiiment? Perhaps Ben Johnson saw in the cat of that time a difficult life full of cares.
At the other end of the spectrum the phrase, “A cat has nine lives” reflects the cat’s ability to get out of trouble with its guile speed and athletic ability to lengthen its life.
Somewhere between 1598 (when the phrase was first used) and the present (Jan 2011) the word “care” was changed to “curiosity”.
It is said that the first published use of the modern version was in The Galveston Daily News, 1898. Altough Wikipedia says the first appearance of the modern version is in the 1902 edition of Proverbs Maxims and Phrases.
The phrase is still modified. Language is always evolving. People google – search for, “curiosity kills the cat” for example.
The current phrase curiosity killed the cat means that if a person is overly curious (s)he is likely to suffer some loss or detriment, or get into trouble – in short, mind your own business!