she's the cat's mother

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she's the cat's mother

Post by Archived Topic » Thu Dec 16, 2004 5:01 pm

The following extract is from the archives >>>
Where does the saying (or phrase) 'she's the cat's mother' come from?

Submitted by: Library Macarthur Girls High School (Parramatta - Australia)

Answer: The phrase, as I recall experiencing it, is 'She' is the cat's mother, and was always used as a reproof, i.e. when a child talks of their mother as 'she' rather than Mummy, Mom or whatever.
Answered by the Word Wizard on September 11, 1998

.. this is hardly an answer and I was asked recently where the saying came from .. as was pointed out the phrase is a reproach to, in general, children when they have called an older person "she" rather than using their name or station .. so my friendly word wizards what say you on the origins of this rather odd phrase .. also is it used in other countries or is it an Aussie phrase ?? ..
.. incidently for those interested in probablity and chance, the person who asked me has a child who attends Macarthur Girls High School in Parramatta where the original request in 1998 came from ..
WoZ of Aus 26/12/04
Submitted by Wizard of Oz (Newcastle - Australia)
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she's the cat's mother

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Dec 16, 2004 5:14 pm

Dear WOZ,

Are you a friendly Word Wizard?
I've had a look for your phrase and the path turns full circle.

The question and answer below come from:


[Q] From Jane Van de Ban; a similar question came from Richard Dury in Italy: “Can you tell me anything about the expression Who’s she? The cat’s mother? I’ve heard it used in a context in which you’re talking about a woman and referring to her as she rather than by name.”

[A] How it came into being, I really can’t begin to discover. All I can tell you is that it’s first recorded about the end of the nineteenth century (at least, the Oxford English Dictionary has citations from that period; Jonathon Green says in his Cassell Dictionary of Slang that it dates only from the 1950s in the form of a direct reply to somebody asking rudely or intrusively “who are you?”). In its older form, as you say, it was usually said to a child who used she to refer to some grown-up when this was thought to be insufficiently polite.

And the following note about Jonathon Green comes from your own site!

A Word Wizard writes…

Note from the Editor:

Jonathon Green is the UK’s leading authority on Slang as well as a world-renowned lexicographer and writer on word-related matters. His most recent publication is the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, recognised as the definitive study of the subject. He is currently working on the Penguin Dictionary of 20th Century Slang with citations and the Cassell Historic Dictionary of Slang. Jonathon is also a founder-member of the Word Wizard editorial board and a regular contributor to our columns.

Maybe you should ask him directly?

Reply from Leighton Harris (Cambridge - England)
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she's the cat's mother

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Dec 16, 2004 5:27 pm

Wiz, I did find the expression in “Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang” and Partridge’s “Dictionary of Catch Phrases,” however, with two somewhat different definitions, and no particular enlightening derivation. The phrase is given in these sources as “She’ is the cat’s mother (or grandmother),” along with the variant “Who’s ‘she’ – the cat’s mother (or grandmother)?”

Cassell’s Jonathon Green (also the Wordwizard of ‘Ask the Wordwizard’) says that the expression since the 1950s has been a response to the question ‘Who are you?’ when the question is considered impertinent and or over intrusive. This is ‘as I recall experiencing it,’ said Green, who is British, in his1998 Wordwizard response. So, from this and the British quotes below, the expression appears to be popular in Britain as well as Australia (although not with Green’s definition), but I have never heard it in the U.S. and can’t comment on other English-speaking countries. Green (in Cassell’s) continues with a question mark on the derivation of his particular meaning and says: “the (middle class) admonition to a child talking of ‘she,’ when describing a women, who ought to be ‘Mrs. X’ or ‘Miss Y’: “She’ is the cat’s mother.” And, thus, Green seems to be saying that the older meaning (the one you refer to) is passé and implies that it has been supplanted by his newer one. However, according to Partridge, the OED, and a sampling of the 124 Google hits for this phrase, I would tend not to agree with him.

Eric Partridge in his ‘A Dictionary of Catch Phrases’ (1977) and in his later ‘Shorter Dictionary of Catch Phrases’ (1994) compiled by Fergusson from the work of Partridge & Beale, makes no mention of Green’s newer definition. They say that “ ‘She’ is the cat’s mother (or grandmother)” dates from the mid-19th century or earlier and is “one of two or three best-known of the domestic catch phrases” – that says it’s pretty damn popular – which is usually addressed to a child by a parent who refers to his or her (or any other [[adult]] female) as ‘she.’ But “by 1960 slightly obsolete.” The variant “Who’s ‘she’ – the cat’s mother (or grandmother)?” dates from the late 19th century.

The OED seems to agree with Partridge’s assessment: “In the catch-phrase’ “who's she—the cat's mother?” and variants, said to one (especially a child) who uses the pronoun of the third person singular impolitely or with inadequate reference.”
<1897 “Don't call your mamma ‘she’. ‘SHE’ IS THE CAT.” The Beth Book’ by Sarah Grand, xx. page 204> [[British writer]]

<1913 “‘WHO’S SHE? demanded Nurse. ‘SHE’S THE CAT’S MOTHER.”—‘Sinister Street’ by C. Mackenzie, I, i. page 9> [[British writer]]

<1934 “Nonny (‘with a jerk toward Elizabeth’): Perhaps she’d play. Elizabeth: In my young days I was taught that ‘SHE’ WAS THE CAT’S GRANDMOTHER.”—‘Touch Wood’ (play) by Dodie Smith, II, iv> [[exchange between Nonny, a little girl, and Elizabeth, a spinster [[now, very un-P.C.]], aged thirty-eight ]], [[British writer]]

<1949 “‘She said so.’ Jane looked superior. ‘SHE, my boy, IS THE CAT’S MOTHER.’”—‘Painted Garden’ by Noel Streatfeild, ix. page 105> [[British writer]]

<1959 “To one who keeps saying ‘she’ in an impolite manner the reproof is: ‘WHO’S _SHE_, THE CAT’S MOTHER?’”—‘The Lore & Language of School Children’ by I. & P. Opie, iii. page 52> [[British writers]]

<1972 “WHO’S SHE? THE CAT’S GRANDMOTHER?—‘Nanny Says’ by Casson & Grenfell, page 21> [[British writers]]

<2003 “In school I was taught never to say she. / To always use a person’s given name / “SHE IS THE CAT’S MOTHER.”—‘A Picture of Dawn’ (poem) by mle>

Of course, none of the above specifically addresses your question of the phrase’s derivation. Well, my mother used to tell me every time I used to say ‘hey’ in her presence, that ‘Hey is for horses.’ In the same spirit, what could a parent (or other) say to a child when they didn’t like them referring to an adult as ‘she,’ particularly when that adult was herself. So, they had to come up with something that said ‘she’ is/means blah, blah, blah. Imagining that the child WAS referring to his own mother as ‘she,’ it is not hard to visualize that the mother, in disgust, might come up with something like ‘she’ is the mother of some lower creature. And what better lower creature, than one the child would be most familiar with such as a house dog or cat (e.g. rat, mouse, or possibly horse, cow, pig, goat might have been close – but no cigar!)? So, by executive decision of mothers of old, cat it was!

Ken – December 26, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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she's the cat's mother

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Dec 16, 2004 5:41 pm

.. thanks Ken .. I have often wondered why it only referred to the female pronoun "she" and not the male pronoun "he" as in say >>> "'He' is the dog's father." or the like ..
.. I have never heard the alternative usage quoted by Green in my linguistic environment ..
WoZ of Aus 27/12/04
Reply from Wizard of Oz (Newcastle - Australia)
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she's the cat's mother

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Dec 16, 2004 5:54 pm

WoZ, That is a coincidence. When I arrived in DC in 96 the house I bought belonged to an old student friend from Malta. He still lives in DC and you should have seen the shock on his face when I approached him and told him who I was.
Anyway, I never use this term but my children always say 'she' when referring to their mother. This usually happens when they are in a defensive position trying to explain some thing. I always redirect them by telling them "you mean mom". I wonder if this is said when the children are being reprimanded or are in trouble and have to explain their situation? It does not usually come up, reference to she/he, in regular conversation.

26th of December 2004
Reply from Ahmed ELNamer (Dawson Creek - Canada)
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she's the cat's mother

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Dec 16, 2004 6:07 pm


I have heard this phrase, used to correct a child as to not use the pronoun "she", and remind the child it is important to be formal when referring to adults. When a child was to refer to a teacher as "she" rather than Mrs.Wizard, "she's the cat's mother". It is alright to refer to the cat's mother as "she" but not an adult. I have not found anything to be more precise in origin.

"Bob's your uncle"
Reply from Gregg MacDonald (Halifax - Canada)
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