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The meaning and origin of the expression: Cat got your tongue?

Cat got your tongue?

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Cat got your tongue?'?

'Has the cat got your tongue' is a light-hearted question addressed to someone who is inexplicably silent.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Cat got your tongue?'?

Has the cat got your tongue?The origin of the phrase 'has the cat got your tongue?' isn't known. What is certain is that it isn't derived as a reference to the cat o' nine tails or people's tongues being fed to cats in ancient Egypt. Both of these have been suggested and there's no shred of evidence to support either of them.

'Cat got your tongue?' is the shortened form of the query 'Has the cat got your tongue?' and it is the short form that is more often used. It is somewhat archaic now but was in common use until the 1960/70s. It was directed at anyone who was quiet when they were expected to speak, and often to children who were being suspiciously unobtrusive.

There's no derivation that involves any actual cat or celebrated incident of feline theft. Like the blackbird that 'pecked off his nose', the phrase is just an example of the light-hearted imagery that is, or was, directed at children.

The expression sounds as though it might be old but isn't especially so. I can find no instances of it in print until the mid 19th century, as in this example from the Wisconsin newspaper The Racine Democrat, December 1859:

"How I love a rainy day!" he said.
To this I made no answer. I loved a rainy day too, but I was not disposed to say so just then.
"Oh ho! The cat got your tongue has it?" was his next remark.:

The fact that the journalist who wrote this made no explanation suggests that the expression would have been familiar to readers in the US mid-west in 1859. The early examples of the expression in print all come from the USA, which reinforces the falsity of the Egyptian or Royal Navy origins.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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