It seems that “scaredy-cat” first appeared in print as “fraidie-cat” (fraidy-cat). The two sayings having very similar meanings. And they’re both based on the fact that domestic cats are often frightened of strangers. A person is described as a scaredy-cat if they are unwilling to try something new. You can see the similarity. Something new is strange to them and they are reticent to dive in and try or explore it. This is what we see in unsocialised cats (feral cats) when interacting with all people and socialised cats who are unfamiliar with certain people.
The Internet tells me that a newspaper article (The Chronicle) used the phrase ‘fraidie-cat’ in May 1897.
“I Shan’t-tell you what’s his name!
When we want to play a game,
Always thinks that he’ll be hurt,
Soil his jacket in the dirt,
Tear his trousers, spoil his hat—
As you can see there are two versions of the spelling of fraidy-cat but it’s immaterial to this discussion.
And in 1871 ‘fraidy-cat’ was American-English slang. The ‘fraidy’ part of the phrase is a distortion of the word “afraid”. To which the word “cat” is added for the reasons stated.
It appears that the term “scaredy-cat” was used about nine years later in 1906 in the book Billy Bounce as olflows:
“That is Scaredy Cat, and she will never come back.”
The author used capitals and there is no hyphen which shows how spelling and grammar conventions evolve over time.
From a cat lover’s perspective, the interesting aspect of this phrase is that, as mentioned, it originates in the naturally defensive nature of unsocialised cats to all people and domestic cats to strangers because there are unknown quantities. A person who is timid or lacks confidence is liable to retreat from unknown situations or be reticent to explore and dive into them. They are uncertain.
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