Origin of no room to swing a cat

This phrase means no room to swing a cat-o’-nine-tails, the whip used to punish British sailors and soldiers from the 17th century until it was outlawed in 1881. The cramped quarters below deck on ship prevented the use of this long whip and so the punishment had to be carried out above the lower decks and on the open spaces of the upper deck. Nowadays it does not mean that there is no room to swing a cat by his/her tail. People use the phrase ‘no room to swing a cat’ to mean a cramped space so the connection is still there with its origin.

A sailor is stipped to the waist and whipped with a cat-o'-nine-tails
A sailor is stipped to the waist and whipped with a cat-o’-nine-tails. Image in public domain and modified by PoC.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

The origin is certainly grisly and cruel as the cat-o’-nine-tails was a nasty instrument of punishment. It has nine cords and nine knots on each cord. The number 9 reflects the nine lives of domestic cats, meaning cats tend to avoid losing their lives which is ironic because in the 18th century this whip was used in delivering 300 lashes to a miscreant sailor or soldier. This must have been a trashing to within an inch of these mens’ lives.

Every lash of the whip caused marks on the skin corresponding to every knot that made contact. It gave the impression the back of the man had been devastatingly clawed by an angry cat.


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