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Re: Walk the cat back

Posted by Baceseras on April 08, 2010 at 17:08

In Reply to: Re: Walk the cat back posted by Brian from Shawnee on April 08, 2010 at 16:20:

: : : : : : : Columnist Maureen Dowd, in the current New York Times, uses the phrase "to walk the cat back," apparently to suggest that a certain attempt to reverse a course of events is unlikely to succeed. I don't believe I've seen this one before, even though a simple Google search turns up many other instances of its use. It seems to imply a more structured approach to undoing perceived damage than would, say, "to put the cat back into the bag." Is this, indeed, what it means? Or is there a standard meaning for "to walk the cat back" of which I am not aware?

: : : : : : [Robert Littell wrote a spy thriller called _Walking Back the Cat_, first published in 1997. That was my first time meeting the phrase. I seem to recall the author included a note on the title, giving his version of its meaning and provenance. It was current, if memory serves me, among government operators, who used it to mean attempting to retrace a process to its origin, when that process had been tentative and indirect in the first place. So, yes, unlikely to succeed. -Baceseras.]

: : : : : More specifically, Maureen Dowd was talking about the bizarre comparison made by the priest, Raniero Cantalamessa (whose last name translates to "Chants the Mass"). He compared the detractors of the Church in regard to priestly abuse of children to those [sc. Germans] who persecuted the Jews, a comparison which caused gasps even among Cantalamessa's fellow clergy. Said Dowd, 'Even the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, tried to walk the cat back. "I don't think it's an appropriate comparison."'

: : : ["Walking back the cat" doesn't mean what Ms Dowd seems to think. She uses it as if it meant "turning back the clock," or wishing something undone that has been done. There are plenty of vivid phrases already to say that; but nothing else, as far as I know, expresses as well what "walking back the cat" means - attempting to trace the beginning steps of a situation that had been arrived at slowly, erratically, and unpredictably. It would be a (minor but real) shame if this invaluable expression were to get blurred and lost by Dowd's handling. -Baceseras.]

: : I believe you, Baceceras, even though I have never heard that expression before Ms. Dowd used it. And I shall certainly never use it myself, not only for the usual reason (lack of familiarity), but also because the concept of walking a cat seems so unrealistic to me. (Yes, I know it is sometimes done. But not by me.)
: : SS

: Can it be that there are two different but very similar phrases here? I haven't read the Maureen Dowd piece, but she's quoted here as saying "walk the cat back". The espionage/intelligence term appears to be "walk back the cat". There's a discussion of "walk the cat back" on wordspy.com that indicates the earliest known use is from 1984 and was used by a banker in a context that matches Dowd's (that is, to reverse a course of events). The two examples of the phrase on wordspy.com have the words in different order as well, and they ignored or didn't notice the difference in the context of the two examples.

: Anyway the mental image conjured by "walk back the cat" (a guy in a turban with a rifle tracing tiger tracks through the jungle to find its lair) is different from "walk the cat back" (a crazy lady with a house cat on a leash trying to make it walk backwards).

[I think it makes no difference where "back" comes in the phrase, "walk back the cat" or "walk the cat back," that's a choice left to taste and upbringing; but the meaning - whatever it means - remains the same. Did we not have this discussion over "up" and "out"? "Throw out those empties" or "throw those empties out" ... "lock up the gazebo" or "lock the gazebo up."

[But, Brian, I don't believe one would naturally say a turbaned tiger tracker was walking "back" the cat: he'd be going _forward_, following the cat's tracks. Earlier uses of the phrase in Dowd's sense just show she's not the first to make the same mistake - that is, they heard a catchy 'new' expression and put it to use without thinking clearly what it meant; they assimilated it to something nearer and more familiar, but at the same time dulled the edge of a uniquely useful saying. - Bac.]