What is the origin of the Cheshire Cat?

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland readers encounter a large, grinning cat lying on the hearth. Alice is told that the cat is grinning from ear to ear because they are from Cheshire but there’s no explanation as to why cats from that county in England (see map below) should be predisposed to smiling in this sinister way.

Cheshire cat
Cheshire cat. Image by MIkeB depicts Lewis Carroll thinking about his Cheshire Cat.
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Please would you tell me…why your cat grins like that? It’s a Cheshire-Cat,” said the Duchess, “and that’s why…”

“The Cheshire Cat is sometimes interpreted as a guiding spirit for Alice, as it is he who directs her toward the March Hare’s house and the mad tea party, which eventually leads her to her final destination, the garden.” – Carleton.edu website.

Location of Cheshire in England, UK
Location of Cheshire in England, UK, Image: MikeB from Wikipedia.

Where did Lewis Carroll get the idea from to include a grinning Cheshire cat in his now famous book? There are two possibilities one occurring before the other.

Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland
Sir John Tenniel’s hand-colored proof of Cheshire Cat in the Tree Above Alice for The Nursery “Alice”. This is a tabby cat and probably in the mind of the artist a random bred cat that he had seen. A classic domestic cat.

Cheese

In the book, the cat slowly vanishes and finally disappears starting with the end of its tail with the grinning face remaining for quite a long time before they disappear completely. We see this disembodied grin.

It has been suggested that the idea comes from a commercially available cheese from Cheshire which might have been seen by Lewis Carroll at the time. On the packaging there is a grinning feline face on one end. The rest of the cat is omitted by the manufacturer giving the impression that the cat had disappeared except for the grin.

Earlier reference

Lewis Carroll may have had knowledge of an earlier reference but a more obtuse one. In fact, the cheesemaker may also have known about this reference.

The expression “grinning like a Cheshire Cat” was in use at the time the cheese was manufactured. It was an abbreviation of the saying to “grin like a Cheshire Caterling”. That phrase was active about 500 years ago.

A “caterling” was a lethal swordsman during the reign of Richard III; a protector of the Royal Forests. He was renowned for his evil grin which became wider when he had killed a poacher with his sword.

The word caterling was shortened to “cat”. People have a habit of reducing words and sayings to ones which they can say more quickly which is how words evolve sometimes.

This led to anybody with a wicked smile to be described as “grinning like a Cheshire Cat”. Lewis Carroll probably knew about this phrase but because he describes the cat as disappearing leaving a broad smile, it’s more likely that the major influence was the cheese.

The conclusion, though, is that Lewis Carroll did not invent the idea of the Cheshire cat. He borrowed it from earlier history.

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