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Swinging a Cat

Does anyone know the etymology of the phrase: ‘’not enough room to swing the cat'’?

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Oh, yes.

Apparently the "cat" in question is not a lovely animal that used to be a kitten, but is really the ancient punishment whip known as the "cat o' nine tails." This whip was one of the favorite weapons with which sailing ship and pirate captains and officers kept discipline among their rough, hard-bitten, often unwilling crew members.

When the punishment was inflicted, the accused seaman would be tied to a mast in an open space on deck where there was "enough room to swing a cat."

speedwell2 July 21, 2004, 11:14am

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I've seen a completely different etymology, but have been unable to dig up the source.

As I understand it, the cat in question is just a cat. There was evidently a game, normally played in a backyard, where a stuffed bag, called a "cat" would be suspended from a tree, swung, and you'd try to throw a knife into it. Evidently, the bag actually contained a cat in its original form--people have done some pretty sadistic things to cats.

Adam Rice July 21, 2004, 12:00pm

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I believe speedwell has it right. The cat o' nine tails is also the source of the phrase "let the cat out of the bag," meaning to be in trouble. The cat (whip) was kept in a distinctive bag that one would only see on punishment day.

Dudeness September 14, 2004, 9:55am

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I found this site by accident. The expression, 'no room to swing a cat' does indeed come from the sea faring days and there being insufficient room except on the quarter deck, with the crew assembled on the main deck for a flogging to take place. It is, however, NOT associated with 'letting the cat out of the bag'-meaning to discover a secret or uncover a ruse. This comes from when piglets were sold in sacks. Unscupulous (though enterprising) farmers would place a cat in the sack and attempt to sell it at market as a pig. A canny buyer would open the sack to discover, not a pig but a cat, hence letting it out of the bag. This is liked to 'buying a pig in a poke' (sack).

marrtin_hall-kenny March 30, 2006, 5:52am

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Actually, the old saying is " not enough room to CUSS a cat " and it derives from the Smoky Mountains. and YES, cats have a history of both getting in trouble and being the cause. Since the cat has a reputation of hobnobbing with the occult, being worshipped in ancient Egypt, and having 9 lives, then it was assumed little to no damge could be done.

annie o April 8, 2006, 4:52am

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If you're interested in the origins of strange words and phrases then look here:

IngisKahn April 8, 2006, 10:45am

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Wht is it "piping" hot?

william April 1, 2009, 10:08am

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Yes     No