I am seeing the saying “flat cats” a lot nowadays. Just this morning it was used as follows, in a headline for The Mirror in the UK: “Fury as NHS staff lose out in pension changes – while fat cats are quids in”. We all know what it means: rich people who perhaps lack integrity and who tend to break the rules and who want to have political influence because they have made enough money and seek new challenges. Often what they want in the UK is to buy their way into becoming a lord in the House of Lords i.e. a life peerage by donating large sums of money to the governing party usually the Conservatives who are more prone to sleaze than Labour, who are more prone to incompetence.
But the underlying situation is that ‘fat cats’ are rich and influential. Perhaps being rich and breaking societal rules go together because those people who become rich tend to break rules as a way to achieve their goals. It gives them an edge over the rest which brings them wealth.
It’s pretty clear that the saying was first used in America in the 1920s when journalists started to use it. For example, a journalist writing for The Sun in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 1, 1925 wrote: “Fat Cats” In Plenty Arrayed On Both Sides For Coming Battle.
The text started:
The battle alignment in Maryland between the Weller and the anti-Weller forces in the Republican party promises the finest Fat Cat fight ever seen in this State. Primaries of any sort are the politicians’ Paradise, but a primary in which there is a collection of Fat Cats on each side is almost too good to be true.
That writer may have been Frank Kent who in also writing for the Baltimore Sun in an essay “Fat Cats and Free Rides” stated:
A Fat Cat is a man of large means and slight political experience who, having reached middle age, and success in business, and finding no further thrill, sense or satisfaction in the mere piling up of more millions, develops a yearning for some sort of public honor, and is willing to pay for it. There are such men in all the States, and they are as welcome to the organization [i.e., the party] as the flowers in May.
But it appears to me that Mr Kent was taking his lead from other people who were using this saying at the time. He had picked it up during his journalistic investigations. It was being bandied around politics and business at the time. So, we don’t know when it actually started or the individual who first coined the saying but it was likely to be not long before this journalist used it and referred to it in his reporting.
The next big question is why the word “cat” is incorporated into the saying? Domestic cats are not rich and at that time they were not fat. Although today there is a cat obesity epidemic according to veterinarians! That’s thanks to a change in lifestyle and dry cat food in my opinion. The change in lifestyle referred to is: more indoor cats and normalising fatness by their owners.
I can’t find the reason why cats were chosen to be a representative of rich, obese men who want to have an influence on politics. I have to rely on common sense which is that the word “cat” rhymes with the word “fat” and in doing so the saying has bite. It’s the kind of saying which would stick around and it has stuck around.
However, it is a bit upsetting for cat lovers to have the domestic cat smeared by the shenanigans of rich men with dubious integrity.
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