Origin of the word ‘meow’ – it’s onomatopoeic

The origin of the word “meow” is an onomatopoeic representation of the actual sound that domestic cats make, usually when requesting something such as food, albeit that it is a stereotypic representation because the domestic cat meow is very variable and often does not sound like a typical meow at all. The word ‘meow’ is a noun or a verb. As a noun you might say: “My cat has a nice meow”. And as a verb it might be used in the following sentence: “This cat meows beautifully”. There is a modern alternative but less used than ‘meow’ which is ‘mew’. It is also both a verb and a noun. Also, ‘meow’ is sometimes spelled ‘miaow’ although this version is less common.

Cats like bathrooms when occupied and used
Cats like bathrooms when occupied and used and he employs a very vocal greeting. Photo: Reddit.com
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The meow says many things contexts but the message is always the same, in essence, namely, “I require your immediate attention”. The vocalisation originates in the sound a kitten makes when requesting help from their mother.

Meow is simply meant to sound like the typical vocalisation that the domestic cat makes when he or she speaks. In other words, it is meant to be a word that mimics a domestic cat’s cry (onomatopoeic – where the word sounds like the thing it describes). Some wild cat species also meow. It appears to be as simple as that. But I don’t see it quite that way because the “M” in meow is just a bit odd. When cats meow, they either don’t actually start by making the “m” sound or it is a very silent “m”. It seems that we put the “m” in meow or have hardened it and the bit that follows is the sound of the cat calling or speaking. Click on this to hear a typical cat call: Cat meowing. And there is another audio file below.

The letter “M” is firmly planted on the forehead of the most commonly occurring type of cat in the world the tabby cat (new window). The Egyptians were possibly the first people who domesticated the cat on a wide scale. The Egyptian Mau is a spotted tabby cat. It is claimed to be the only naturally occurring spotted cat. This, though, is an odd claim as there are many wild cats with spots and all of them occur naturally. Perhaps it is the only naturally occurring spotted domestic cat.

Cat meow
Cat meow. Click for a larger version of the image.

Today, the Egyptian Mau is both a glamorous show cat and a persecuted feral cat that still inhabits Egypt. It is thought to be the descendent of the African Wild Cat. Of course, it looks fancier and more refined in show cat form but the similarity is still apparent.

We have then a cat with the tabby “M” on the forehead living in Egypt at the time the cat was worshipped and thoroughly domesticated, thousands of years before Christ. The current word for cat in Egypt is “Mau” and this word when spoken sounds like the meow the cat makes. A convenient coincidence?

At the beginning of domestication of the wild cat and for thousands of years the only coat was the tabby with the M mark on the forehead.

The cat in ancient Egypt, or miw (meaning ‘to see’ – based on the cat’s eyes that shine in the dark – see Why Do Cats Eyes Glow in the Dark), was a sacred and respected animal. (src: – link broken). Apparently from 1450 BC wild cats and domestic cats were called Miu, or Mitt (female), meaning she who mews. The word for ‘cat’ was also the word for meow in China and Egypt. This might still be the case; I am not sure.

In Cantonese Chinese the word cat begins with the letter “m”. It is “maau” in Cantonese Chinese jyutping and “mao” in Mandarin Chinese pinyin. (src: answers.yahoo.com)

Synonyms (different words with similar or the same meaning) are: meow; mew; miaou; miaow; miaul (src: http://www.audioenglish.net/dictionary/meow.htm)

In English was “meow” formulated in 1873? This might be the case as it is the time when the domestic cat became a show cat. Earlier words would be: miaow, also miau (1634), meaw (1632). French: miaou, German: miauen, In Chinese, miau means “cat.” (src: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?l=m&p=11).

Letter M on forehead – perhaps an influence on the word meow?

Tabby M mark
Tabby M mark. Pic in public domain. Marked up by MikeB


Well, all these words start with the letter “M”, the sign on the forehead of the most common type of cat, the tabby. And as I said the actual meow does not have an “m” in it or it is very silent. I may be wrong but the origin of the word meow is a development of the onomatopoeic word that mimics the cat’s voice, which was hardened up by the word for cat which in turn is based on its voice. And the word for cat in Egypt was influenced by the tabby “M” mark on the forehead. The whole process seems to have been influenced to a certain extent by this famous tabby “M”. And if not, it was fun speculating.

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