Japan Currents, December, 1997

What's in a Word?


Cats are as common in Japan as in the United States, and as frequent in the languages as well. Some expression emphasize perceived positive or negative aspects, while others simply reflect a typical trait, and for the most part there are few parallels in the two languages.

Enter many a Japanese eating or drinking place and you're apt to find a maneki-neko, a "beckoning cat," made of papier-mâché or pottery, seated with one paw raised, inviting customers to enter. It's traditionally considered good luck (for the shop), and is often presented as a gift at openings. Culture-specific words like maneki-neko, which refer to an object or aspect unique to the society, don't translate easily. Another such is nekojita, "car's tongue" the Japanese expression for a person who can't eat or drink very hot foods: we don't generally eat foods so hot that we notice people who can't.

In general, words representing the cat in a positive sense seem to be in the minority in both languages. Beyond the cat's proverbial "nine lives," phrases like "the cat's meow" or "the cat's pajamas," are slangy descriptions of something up-to-date and terrific, though these don't seem to be heard much nowadays. Japanese has karite kita neko "a borrowed cat," to describe someone behaving in an uncharacteristically quiet or well-behaved way, as a cat in unfamiliar territory. And neko kawaigari suru "to indulge a cat" for doting on someone in the way some people care for their cats. We speak of looking like "the cat that swallowed the canary " when a person has an extremely self-satisfied expression. "Curiosity killed the cat," a warning not to be too nosy, seems to be a variant of the traditional "care killed the cat," a warning against overprotection.

For the most part there seems to be a tendency to highlight more negative aspects. Phrases like neko ni koban, (to give gold coins to a cat) "to cast pearls before swine," neko ni katsuobushi (entrusting a cat with a dried bonito) "leaving a fox to guard the henhouse," and neko o kaburu (to put on the cat) "to be a wolf in sheep's clothing," are more common in implying that cats are not so much to be trusted, are sly, or selfish. English "catty," (formerly, "cattish") might used to describe a woman of sly or spiteful character. And something that "looks like something the cat dragged in," is in rather poor condition... like a dead mouse.

Mice of course show up regularly with cats, and so "while the cat's away the mouse will play" warns of behavior without supervision, and "playing cat and mouse," beating around the bush or toying with someone; naku neko wa nezumi o toranu (a meowing cat catches no rats) for big talk with no results. Their relationship with dogs doesn't go unremarked: "fighting like cats and dogs," or "raining cats and dogs" pick up on the traditional animosity.

Many Japanese expressions seem to emphasize the "commonness" of cats. They speak of nekomatagi, "cat-straddling" for a fish that tastes so bad even a cat wouldn't eat it, neko no ko ippiki inai (not even a kitten around) for someplace showing no signs of life at all, and neko mo shakushi mo (cats and ladles too), for "every Tom, Dick and Harry," something as common as could be. When Japanese are so overworked that any helping hand would do, they'd even settle for neko no te mo karitai "to want to borrow a cat's paw." English slang through the years has often used cats as its metaphor, and "cat" has achieved popularity for both men and women. The "hep-cat" of the sixties and earlier was someone who was "with it."

Many Japanese words and phrases merely describe some aspect which is readily noticed, like neko no hitai "(about as small as) a cat's forehead" used frequently to describe a tiny backyard in Japan, or nekoze "a cat's back" for someone with a slight stoop, or rounded shoulders, and nekokke "cat hair" for soft, fine hair on one's head. Similarly neko no me no you ni kawaru (change like a cat's eye) for something that changes rapidly, and the English "cat nap" for catching a quick sleep.

Why we use "let the cat out of the bag," for someone who gives away a surprise or secret before its time, or "what's the matter, cat got your tongue?," when we wonder why someone's so quiet, is unknown. Like the history of the word "cat" itself, the origins of some of these expressions are as mysterious as the Sphinx.

Stephen Trussel

Let the cat out of the bag

from Michael Ball, UK (10/10/99), a suggestion for the origin of this phrase:
    I believe that the expression is nautical in origin. The cat in question is the 'cat of nine tales', a nine-stranded whip used to administer punishment aboard vessels of the British Royal Navy. The 'cat' was an object of some ceremony, and was kept in a special bag, hence 'letting the cat out of the bag' meant that there would be trouble. There was no one person who was responsible for administering punishment, but it was traditional for a sailor to be beaten by one of his own mess-mates (the people with whom he ate).

    Just as a point of interest, I believe that this naval custom is also the root of the saying 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours', meaning 'if you do me a favour, I'll return it'. Listening to the phrase, I imagine that most people would assume that the favour being done is the scratching, as if the person has an itch that needs to be scratched, but the original intent was more like 'if you only scratch my back (rather than hurting me badly), if I'm ever in the position where I have to whip you, I will only scratch your back'.

    Michael Ball
More commonly, the origin is connected to the phrase "buy a pig in a poke", and the following seem to be typical examples (found on the Internet):
  • What's the origin of the saying "a pig in the poke?" It was a common trick in 17th century England of trying to give away a cat to an unsuspecting "shopper" for a suckling pig (a young pig). When he opened the poke (sack), he "let the cat out of the bag," and the trick was revealed.

  • "letting the cat out of the bag" means to tell a secret, where back hundreds of years ago people would trick farmers into buying cats in bags, and say they were pigs. The tricksters had a secret the farmer didn't know, so the farmer found out the secret when he "let the cat out of the bag"!

  • In 18th century England, British tenants who farmed land that belonged to gentry were required to pay part of everything they produced as rent. To avoid paying some rent, many cunning farmers secretly sold some of their pigs without reporting the transactions.
    Often, these farmers would hide their pigs in a heavy bag, or a poke (which, by the way, is why the phrase "pig in a poke" means "something that's offered in a disguised way").
    Eventually, crafty salespeople realized that, in their haste, customers who engaged in these illegal deals didn't bother to look inside their bag, which made it easy to pass off a cat as a young pig. Once the buyer arrived at home, however, the secret came out in the open, as he let the cat out of the bag.
I personally find it hard to believe in a cat sitting quietly in a bag passed from one person to another, and being somehow mistaken for a pig by a buyer, or that someone buying a pig wouldn't want to look at it first. I like Michael Ball's explanation better, though it doesn't seem to explain the element of surprise which seems central to the phrase...

"cat got your tongue?"

From what I have studied that expression came about during the middle ages when witches were feared. The cat was a common associate of the witch and it was belived that the witch's cat did his/her dirty work for it's master. During this time the witch-hunts were commonplace and for a person to be discovered as a witch ment death. Thus it was also believed that if you saw a witch, his/her cat would "steal" your tongue, or otherwise control it, in order to keep you from letting out the secret.
The way to prevent the cat from doing so was first: not to let the witch know that you knew and second: to be blessed as quickly as posible by a priest by confessing that you saw that particular person performing witchcraft. The testimony of course would seal the "witch's" fate, and thus also eliminate the threat of the cat.
Naturaly, if the witch's cat had managed to 'get your tongue' you would be rather quiet or tight-liped about certain things.
Rev. Yolanda A. Hocking
May 31, 2006