Cat idioms are quite common in English and, as is often the case with idioms, they usually have nothing to do with actual cats.
As we shall see, the idiom meaning refers to a situation or emotion, expressed using cat metaphors.
Please be aware of the pitfalls of using idioms incorrectly. This post will help you with this.
There is also a video for those of you who prefer to watch content.
Let’s look at some cat idioms in detail.
Cat got your tongue?
This is a somewhat old-fashioned way of pointing out that someone is being unusually quiet and asking them about it.
“You haven’t said a word all morning – cat got your tongue?”
Depending on the tone used, the question can be meant humourously, or aggressively.
Raining cats and dogs
A very common expression to indicate that it’s raining heavily.
You might see some nonsense online about this referring to the ‘fact’ that cats and dogs would move onto the roof in bad weather, but this is totally implausible and holds no water (pun intended). The exact origin is unknown but is thought to refer to the poor drainage in medieval times.
After a heavy downpour, small animal corpses would get washed away down the street with the rest of the debris. Smaller animals like mice were too small to see and larger animals, such as horses and cows, were valuable and treated differently. Cats and dogs were large enough to see and not really considered valuable.
Not enough room to swing a cat
No, there is no need to contact animal welfare because of this cat idiom. The cat in question is the dreaded cat-of-nine-tails, which was a whip used several hundred years ago mainly in the military to punish offenders. The whip had nine knotted lashes and needed a decent amount of space to use it properly.
The expression here refers to cramped or crowded spaces.
“My first flat was really tiny – not enough room to swing a cat.”
The cat that got the cream
Someone looks very pleased with themselves because they acheived something that they’re proud of.
“You look like the cat that got the cream – what are you so happy about?”
There is an American variation, ‘the cat that got the canary’.
When the cat’s away, the mice will play
This expression means that subordinates will be more relaxed when the person of authority is absent. Or will behave differently and enjoy more freedom when the person in charge isn’t there. Can be parent, teachers, bosses …
Sometimes, only the first part of the expression is used.
Question: “Why are you playing games instead of working?”
Answer: “When the cat’s away …”
More than one way to skin a cat
Another expression with unknown roots. It is a light-hearted idiom meaning that there is more than one way to achieve something.
A more animal-friendly idiom with a similar meaning is ‘Many roads lead to Rome’.
Set/put the cat among the pidgeons
This is best visualised by imagining how a group of birds react when a cat appears. The expression means to do or say something that is likely to cause anger, alarm or unrest with a group of people. To use another bird expression, ‘to ruffle feathers’.
“The prime minister’s latest speech certainly put the cat among the pidgeons.”
Look what the cat dragged/brought in
Depending on the tone of voice used, this cat idiom has two possibile meanings and uses.
It can be a playful and teasing way to say that someone looks disheveled, untidy or dirty.
Or, it can be used with disdain to announce the arrival of an unwelcome guest.
A cat burglar isn’t one that steals cats. It’s an agile burglar that climbs up walls and pipes to reach an open window and gain entry in order to steal valuables from inside the house.
To have kittens
This is used to show extreme fear and stress.
“I was so scared – I nearly had kittens.”
The exact origin of this expression is uncertain but appears to be associated with witchcraft during medieval times. Pregnancy pains were caused by cats growing in the womb and the witches would sell potions to help fight the moggies. Seems that people making money from other people’s ignorance is nothing new …
Let the cat out of the bag
To reveal a secret, often with unpleasant consequences. We don’t know why the cat was in the bag, but it probably wasn’t there of its own free will.
“The cat’s out of the bag now, so there’s no sense in trying to cover it up any more.”
Curiosity killed the cat
This is a strange expression. Which cat, and why curiosity killed it, is unknown. Basically, it’s a nice way of telling someone to keep their nose out of things that don’t concern them.
Question: “So, where were you last night?”
Answer: “Curiosity killed the cat …”
Grinning like a cheshire cat
The cheshire cat in question here is the cat in Lewis Carol’s ‘Alice in Wonderland‘, which had a huge grin. The cat gradually got smaller and smaller, until only the grin remained.
This is usually meant to indicate that a person has a large, somewhat foolish, smile on his face.
Like a cat on a hot tin roof
Someone who is so anxious that they can’t keep still is described as being ‘like a cat on a hot tin roof’. If you imagine how a cat would move if it was on a hot tin roof, you will see that the expression is quite apt.
“Her exam results should arrive today – she’s like a cat on a hot tin roof.”
It was also the inspiration for the famous play by Tennessee Williams.
This refers to people who are easily frightened. Usually used by children to taunt others into doing something they don’t want to do.
“You don’t want to come into the graveyard with us? You’re just a scaredy cat!”
This goes back to the days when jazz was popular and was used to describe somebody (almost always a male) who had style and was cool.
A wealthy and successful person. Not necessarily a compliment.
Can also be used as an adjective. “I’m saving up for a fat-cat car”
This refers to a short sleep.
“My shift starts in an hour – I’ll try and squeeze in a cat nap before I start.”
Another expression usually used by children to deride each other for doing the same as someone else.
“You bought the same trainers as me – you copy cat.”
Also used by news reporters and police to describe a criminal who is copying the methods of another criminal.
“We’re looking for a copy-cat killer.”
A cat in hell’s chance
A way of saying that the chances of something happening are virtually zero.
“I really messed up that interview – I’ve got a cat in hell’s chance of getting that job now.”
A more animal-friendly version is ‘a snowball in hell’s chance’.
Like a scalded cat
Very quickly. We know how cats don’t like water and they like very hot water even less.
“I disturbed the burglar and he took off like a scalded cat.”
A cat’s cradle is the children’s game, in which intricate shapes are made by moving string between fingers. As shown in the diagram.
Due to the often complex nature of the patterns and moves needed to make the patterns, this expression is often used to describe something that’s overly complicated.
“The new rules about booking holiday are a cat’s cradle of unnecssary bureaucracy.”
Cat Idioms Summary
As you can see, there is a wide variety of cat idioms and expressions, even if the actual meaning doesn’t directly refer to cats.
Did I miss any of your favourite cat idioms? Please use the comments to tell me.