Posted by Victoria S Dennis on May 31, 2005
In Reply to: Cat out of the bag posted by Gary on May 31, 2005
: : Cat out of the bag - I was told this has a nautical derivation, closely linked to 'no room to swing a cat'. Both terms referring to the cat of nine tails, rather than an actual moggy. Apparently the 'cat' in question was kept in a muslin bag and you were obviously in serious trouble if the cat came out of the bag.
: : It all sounds very plausible, especially with other popular English sayings having a nautical derivation, such as square meal etc. - but is it fact?
: Ah, plausibility. Where would we be without it?
: For 'cat out of the bag', see http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/227250.html
: Many phrases do have a nautical derivation. I wouldn't be so quick to include 'square meal' though. It's reported in some places to be from the Royal Navy, where it's claimed they served food on square wooden plates. I've not been able to substantiate the plate geometry with the Royal Navy museum, although they don't rule it out. The phrase itself is said by the OED to be of US origin and they have no citations earlier than 1868.
:: You have been infected by agents of the dreaded CANOE (the Campaign to Attribute Naval Origins to Everything). Beware CANOE, their agents are everywhere!
There isn't a shred of truth in the alleged nautical origin of "cat out of the bag". For one thing, no sailor convicted of an offence would have been unaware where the cat-o'-nine-tails was kept, or been surprised to see it being produced - so how could that have given rise to the meaning "that's given away the secret"? For another, none of the people making this claim has ever produced an example of it being used in a nautical context.
The same is true of "no room to swing a cat'; this phase also refers to real live moggies, not flogging. It was a charming English custom back in the 16th-18th centuries to hang a live cat in a bottle and set it swinging as a target for marksmen. People who try to connect this phrase with flogging also fail to produce any examples of its being used in that context.
(In which context, don't believe anyone who tries to tell you that "more than one way to skin a cat" is about catfish; this one too is about moggies. Cats were so regularly skinned for their fur in previous centuries that there was actually a proverb, "what can you have of a cat but her skin?" meaning "you can't get more value out of a thing than it intrinsically has")
"Square meal" is also not nautical, whatever the guides on HMS Victory may tell you. Yes, the Royal Navy did continue using square wooden "trenchers" into the early 18th century, rather later than they were in general use on land. But the phrase, as Gary correctly says, arose in mid-19th century America, at which time Americans also spoke of a "square drink". Try deriving that from 18th-century British naval customs! "Square" here simply means "fair, honest", just as in "square deal" or "fair and square".
(The guides on HMS Victory also like to say that "on the fiddle" derives from naval messing practices as well. That's bunk, too.)