What’s the origin of “let the cat out of the bag”? And what does it mean in the first place? Here’s a short overview of this popular phrase.
“Let the Cat out of the Bag” Meaning
It’s no secret that “to let the cat out of the bag” is a popular English colloquialism that means to reveal something that wasn’t meant to be revealed, usually unintentionally. As such, people who might be commonly referred to as “blabbermouths” may also tend to let the cat out of the bag a bit more than the average citizen. That’s not to say that most people have not been the perpetrators of the embarrassing situation that this popular phrase refers to a few times in their lives.
However, while the meaning tends to be relatable, the origins of this popular phrase are not exactly so clear. The one thing that is known about “letting the cat out of the bag“ is that the first clearly documented instance of the phrase being used was back in 1760 in an early issue of The London Magazine, where a disappointed reviewer argues that “we could’ve wished that the author had not let the cat out of the bag.”
While there is no certainty as to where the term actually came from, there are theories. Two of the most popular are the “pig in a poke” theory and the “cat o’nine tails” theory, both of which are hashed out below.
What is the Origin of “Let the Cat out of the Bag”?
The Pig in a Poke Theory
One of the most popular theories as to the origin of the term actually refers to a pig and not a cat.
The theory goes that the term originated in a common old English market practice where livestock were often sold and traded in open markets. Occasional sellers would simply throw a live pig into a bag for the buyer to carry home, which was referred to at the time as selling a “pig in a poke”; poke simply being a slang term for a bag or sack.
It is hypothesized that occasionally, rather than selling the buyer a pig, a malicious seller would actually toss a feral cat into the bag, all the while warning the buyer not to open the bag until they got home so that the “pig“ didn’t get out. Therefore, once the buyer got home and the cat was let out of the bag, the dishonesty of the seller would then become an open secret. As such, another idiom, “don’t buy a pig in a poke” was a way of saying you should always be wary of what you are being sold.
Critics have argued that this theory seems implausible for a number of reasons. One of the most obvious is that piglets weigh more than cats, even heavy ones. And one could guess that a feral cat in the 16th century might not have a lot to eat. It is also easy to imagine that an animal held inside a bag would likely be in a state of considerable distress and might foreseeably cry out in anguish, and it is a generally well known fact that cats and pigs make noticeably different sounds.
However, to the “pig in a poke” theorists credit, versions of similar phrases exist in Dutch and German as well, both which make reference to buying a “cat in the bag” as buying something you didn’t intend to buy.
The “Cat O’Nine Tails” Theory
Another popular theory claims that “letting the cat out of the bag” actually refers to the “cat o’nine tails,” which was a popular term for a commonly used British Royal Navy punishment instrument used to discipline sailors. The name was derived from the way that the multi-tailed whip would tend to leave a sailor’s back badly scratched, as if they had been attacked by the claws of cat.
The cruel device had to be kept in a sack, which was typically red in color, to prevent the dry salty sea air from ruining the leather, and this is supposedly where “the cat in the bag” came into play. While arriving at the connotation of revealing the secret might seem like a bit of a stretch, if it is thought of as “the cat being let out of the bag” resulting in some form of punishment, it could make more sense.
Critics of this theory argue that the term was recorded before the whip became popularized, or at least the nickname. Meanwhile, proponents of the “cat o’nine tails” theory argue that “letting the cat out of the bag“ was used in reference to receiving a lashing at sea way back in 1695, in a play by William Congreve called Love for Love.
To Let the Cat out of the Bag
In the end, a lot of people argue that letting the cat out of the bag is simply just a juicy and highly relatable mental image. Many point out the cats have always featured prominently in English Proverbs, and were commonly kept as mousers in most British households. Therefore, the typical behavior patterns of cats, including their typical penchant for bags, not to mention the shock they often elicited when they jump out of them, would not be unfamiliar to a large swath of the British public in the 18th century and beyond.
Regardless of where the term actually came from, one thing is for sure. To quote the inimitable humorist Will Rogers, “Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back in.”
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