COPYCAT – Again found just about nothing in the way of etymology. The only thing I can say is that ‘cat’ has been used as a derogatory word since the time of Shakespeare (as opposed to ‘dog’ references which are only of 19th and 20th century vintage).
Shakespeare: In ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ Act 4, Scene 3, Betram says ‘I could endure any thing before but a CAT, and now he’s a CAT to me.’ Later in the same scene he says, “For this description of thine honesty? A pox upon him for me, he’s no more than a CAT.”
Typical of the dictionary ‘copycat’ etymologies I checked was Random House: 1895–1900, America; COPY + CAT, And the New Shorter OED noun, adjective, verb (colloquial) – not much!
Guess it could have just as well turned out to be ‘copydog,’ but for whatever reason, it didn’t. Cats, in my estimation, haven’t overall been particularly discriminated against (versus dogs). In fact, looks to me as though dogs got the short end of the stick. There is ‘catty’ behavior (spiteful, malicious), and (can’t think of much cat stuff either way at the moment – there are those ‘catastrophes. *G*). But there are also ‘cool cats’ and maybe the ‘cats meow.’ Dogwise, there are ‘lucky dogs,’ but there are also ‘dogs’ (as in worthless cur/despicable person, something of extremely poor quality/lemon, poor investment, a women of inferior looks/character, a slow-moving piece of merchandise, etc.), ‘sick as dog,’ ‘dog tired,’ “dog days,’ . . .
The oldest appearance of ‘copycat’ I could find was from 1890 ‘Country of Pointed Firs’ by Sarah Orne Jewett: “Yes,” said Mrs. Todd after a moment of meditation, “there was certain a good many curiosities of human natur' in this neighborhood years ago. There was more energy then, and in some the energy took a singular turn. In these days the young folks is all COPY-CATS, 'fraid to death they won't be all just alike; as for the old folks, they pray for the advantage o' bein' a little different."
Ken G (Fort Collins, CO, USA) – November 23, 2002
Submitted by Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)