What does felis catus mean? I’ll try and break this Latin phrase down to its components and provide translations on the way. An alternative to felis catus is felis silvestris catus (the trinomial name). They are both Latin versions of the English ‘domestic cat’. There is some repetition below but I have retained it as it helps I feel.
Felis is a derivative of fēlis or fēlēs meaning cat in English. Silvestris means ‘wild’ and catus means ‘cunning, crafty and sly, intelligent and clever’.
I suppose therefore that felis catus means ‘crafty cat’ to describe the domestic cat.
Classification of species
The first point to make is that felis catus is the taxonomic classification for the domestic cat. Scientists always use Latin when classifying the world’s species. That’s why when discussing the domestic cat some people refer to the Latin name for this species: Felis catus.
The classification of the family of cats is as follows:
- Family: Felidae (family of all cats)
- Subfamily: Felinae
- Genus: Felis
- Species: Felis silvestris (wild cat)
- Subspecies: Felis silvestris catus (domestic cat)
Catus is the Latin word for cat. Felis silvestris is the Latin for the wildcat, a mammal species and the wild can forbear of the domestic cat.
As mentioned the domestic cat is classified as Felis silvestris catus or Felis catus. You can see that ‘silvestris‘ is sometimes included. Sylvestris is a Latin word meaning of the forest, or not domesticated or tamed, or wild and not cultivated, which is why Felis silvestris is the Latin name for the wild cat. By wild cat I don’t mean all wild cats but the specific species called the wildcat (e.g. North African wildcat – Felis silvestris lybica). ‘Wildcat’ can be written ‘wildcat’ or ‘wild cat’. I prefer the former for describing this species of cat.
Felis is the scientific name for the genus (a taxonomic rank – a step in the classification – meaning a race or group of animals) that contains all the species of small cats.
Dr Morris speculates as to the derivation of the word ‘felis‘. ‘Fe‘ means to bear young which would be a reference to the cats fecundity (fertility and breeding success). Interestingly the word ‘fecund’ and ‘foetus’ come from the same root. An alternative derivation is ‘fell‘ which refers to the cat’s ability in felling mice (bringing them down).
The common English word ‘feline’ comes from ‘felis‘.
P.S. one online Latin to English translators, translate ‘felis‘ as meaning ‘football’! Not bad during the 2018 Football World Cup. Wiktionary says that origin of the word ‘felis‘ is the Latin fēlis or fēlēs meaning cat. Google translate cannot translate these Latin words. Eprevodilac.com (a Latin translator site) translates fēlēs as meaning cat in English.
Latin for cunning, crafty, intelligent, knowing, clever, shrewd, wise, prudent, circumspect.
Sources: various (about 6 in all) including Cat World, Wild Cats of the World, IUCN Red List, online Latin dictionaries and translators and Wikipedia and Wiktionary.
Note: By convention Latin is written in italics.
I would be pleased if any suitably qualified visitor could add or amend this information.