cat got your tongue?

Discuss word origins and meanings.
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cat got your tongue?

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Feb 16, 2013 8:57 pm

I've waterboarded the Internet in order to coax forth the origin of this mysterious-sounding prompt for motivating someone who is reluctant to answer a question, but even so I've failed to force out a conclusive explanation.

Maybe there simply isn't one...

Re: cat got your tongue?

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Sat Feb 16, 2013 11:03 pm

... Cat got your tongue?

... Nah, it's only horsemeat.

Re: cat got your tongue?

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun Feb 17, 2013 5:35 am

Erik, Here is what I was able to dig up, which ain’t much:

(HAS THE) CAT GOT YOUR TONGUE? Why are you not saying anything? The question expresses annoyance when a response is expected. A fanciful explanation for a person’s silence or refusal to speak. Early 20th century [[See 1859 quote below]] ( McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs, Allen’s Dictionary of English Phrases)


HAS THE CAT GOT YOUR TONGUE: Why are you silent? According to Eric Partridge, the term dates from the mid-19th century in both England and the United States and was one of several phrases addressing a child who, after getting into trouble, refused to answer questions. The literal meaning is quite far-fetched, so it obviously comes from the grownup’s invention of some bizarre circumstances that prevents the child from speaking. There is an analogous French idioms, ‘I throw [or give] my tongue to the cat,’ meaning ‘I give up; I have nothing to say.’


CAT GOT YOUR TONGUE Cat got your tongue? Why are you so silent? 19th century. This question is usually [[not sure this any longer true]] asked of a child by a parent or other adult. The notion of a cat rendering a child speechless comes from an ancient belief that a cat can suck the breath from a sleeping child [[I’d like to see a source for this assertion. And how does the ‘tongue’ come into it anyway?)]]. With a young child, parents sometimes play the ‘cat’ by placing the back of their hand on the child’s face and then, while withdrawing their hand, stick the thumb between the first and second fingers, giving the appearance that they have removed the child’s tongue (or nose). Nobody is fooled by this little game. [[Where and when has this so-called ‘cat’ game been played? And why should these particular hand movement be associated with a cat?]]

Needless to say, I am not thrilled with this last discussion, which smells like the improvisations of a bullshitter. The Facts on File explanation sounds more reasonable, but guess I would still classify the etymology of the phrase as ‘origin uncertain.’

The following quotes are from archived sources:
<1859 “To this I made no answer. I loved a rainy day, too, but I was not disposed to say so just then. ‘Oh no! The cat has got your tongue has it?’”—Jacksonville Journal Courier (Illinois), 23 January, page 2 >

<1936 “How fat you are! What do you eat to get that way? Has the cat got your tongue or don’t you know how to talk?”—Salamanca Republican-Press (New York), 29 February, page 4>

<1980 “Finally I lost my patience. ‘Cat got your tongue, Mr. Mancuso?’ ‘How’s that?’ he said, stopping for a red light. ‘I’ve been in this taxi for three minutes and you’ve yet to tell me what’s wrong with the country.’”—Cedar Rapids Gazette (Iowa), 19 August, page 20>

<2001 “Clearly, none of these vocal critics believe in that old ‘cat got your tongue’ philosophy.”—Daily Herald (Chicago, Illinois), 21 July, Section 1, page 9>

<2013 “Finally, I pulled her aside and asked: ‘What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?’ To my utter amazement she smiled, seeing the humour in the comment.”—The Gazette (, 9 February>

Ken – February 16, 2013

Re: cat got your tongue?

Post by Wizard of Oz » Fri Feb 22, 2013 9:42 am

Ken said

The notion of a cat rendering a child speechless comes from an ancient belief that a cat can suck the breath from a sleeping child [[I’d like to see a source for this assertion. And how does the ‘tongue’ come into it anyway?)]]
.. there are many references to this old myth .. however the best can be found on Snopes where they give the status as false .. the belief dates from the 1600s and in 1791 a jury at a coroner's inquest in Plymouth, England rendered a verdict that a child had died due to a cat sucking out its breath .. as recently as 1929 in Nebraska a doctor gave a personal account of how he saw a cat lying on the baby's breast, a paw each side of the babe's mouth, the cat's lips pressing those of the child and the infant's face as pale as that of a corpse, its lips with the blueness of death .. are all Nebraskans that dumb?? .. however the connection between witches and cats is well established with cats being the most common familiar of witches .. and there was a belief about cats, witches and tongues ..
From what I have studied that expression came about during the middle ages when witches were feared. The cat was a common associate of the witch and it was belived that the witch's cat did his/her dirty work for it's master. During this time the witch-hunts were commonplace and for a person to be discovered as a witch meant death. Thus it was also believed that if you saw a witch, his/her cat would "steal" your tongue, or otherwise control it, in order to keep you from letting out the secret.
The way to prevent the cat from doing so was first: not to let the witch know that you knew and second: to be blessed as quickly as posible by a priest by confessing that you saw that particular person performing witchcraft. The testimony of course would seal the "witch's" fate, and thus also eliminate the threat of the cat.
Naturaly, if the witch's cat had managed to 'get your tongue' you would be rather quiet or tight-liped about certain things.
Rev. Yolanda A. Hocking, May 31, 2006
.. this does form a connection between old beliefs and later sayings ..

.. also just to round out the ideas here is another source ..
The phrase probably comes from a custom in the Mideast hundreds of years ago, when it was common to punish a thief by cutting off their right hand, and a liar by ripping out their tongue. These severed body parts were given to the king's pet cats as their daily food.
Source: Cat-ch phrases website
WoZ who has had his breath taken away
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: cat got your tongue?

Post by Phil White » Tue Feb 26, 2013 11:15 pm

I'm shooting in the dark and from the hip, but I can't resist throwing in "the cat ate it" as an excuse for the non-production, particularly of homework assignments. If cats are regarded as opportunist tea-leaves, then these two could share a common origin.
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

Re: cat got your tongue?

Post by trolley » Wed Feb 27, 2013 12:58 am

I guess that's another of those cross-pond differences. Here, it was always the dog eating the homework...and jumping out in front of your car and causing accidents. Just after I received my driver's licence, I put my car into a ditch one night. I told the attending officer that a large black dog had run out on the road and I lost control trying to avoid it.
"Wow! I'm surprised that dog is still around. He must be ancient."
"Excuse me?"
"I've been a cop for over 30 years and that bloody dog has been causing trouble since I was rookie."

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