Where Does “Let The Cat Out Of The Bag” Come From? Five Common English Idioms Explained
Have you ever been curious about the origins of phrases like “letting the cat out of the bag?” How about “feeling under the weather?” Well, good news: I found a handy infographic that explains five common English idioms. Everybody loves an infographic, right?
When it comes to learning a language, navigating idiomatic expressions can be one of the trickiest skills to master. Sometimes the direct translations don't make a whole lot of sense in your native language, and if you're not used to hearing them in their own cultural context? Well, let's just say that they can be tough to attune your ear to them. But the good news is that these days, the Internet makes it a lot easier to figure out exactly what someone means when they talk about “letting the cat out of the bag.”
But while the I dug up infographic details what all these phrases mean, it doesn't go into where they came from. So I decided to pick up the slack and do a little digging for three of the more difficult to explain terms. Here's what I came up with; scroll down to check out the full infographic.
1. “Let the Cat Out of the Bag”
There are two possible explanations for this one floating around out there, but unfortunately we don't know which of them is correct — or, indeed, if either of them is correct. The first explanation describes it as relating to a punishment for sailors; allegedly once upon a time, the British Royal Navy kept a cat o' nine tails on each ship stored in a leather bag. When a sailor needed flogging, out came the bag — and out came the whip. As Mental Floss puts it, taking a whip out of a sack doesn't initially seem to have much to do with revealing a secret — but “if you think of 'letting the cat out of the bag' as a revelation that results in punishment, it makes a little more sense.
The second alleged origin relates the phrase to livestock fraud. The con pulled involved selling piglets in sacks and swapping the sacks for ones filled with cats after the customer had made the purchase. Snopes, however, discounts both of these potential origins, so alas, we may never know the truth.
2. “Feeling Under the Weather”
Again, the origins of this one are a little unclear; generally, though, it's thought to be a nautical phrase. According to a number of online repositories of idiomatic expressions, sailors who felt unwell were sent below deck to protect them from the weather — literally, “under the weather.” Only one of these databases cites an outside source, though, and that source ( Salty Dog Talk: The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions ) was published fairly recently in 1983. As such, I'm not sure when the first recorded usage of the phrase occurred.
3. “Piece of Cake”
This phrase is thought to date back to the 19th century and the tradition of the cake walk, wherein cakes were given out as prizes. However, I also discovered that cake walks have some pretty racist roots. Thanks to this newfound knowledge, I will no longer be participating in any cake walks, because yikes.
Check out the full infographic below:
You can also find more infographics at Visualistan