Let the cat out of the bag

Posted by ESC on October 03, 2001

In Reply to: Let the cat out of the bag posted by Paul Syvret on October 03, 2001

: I actually understood the origins of this to be from the British Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries. On warships, punishment was often meted out by flogging men with a cat 'o nine tails. The said whip was kept in a red velvet bag, and when the 'cat' was out of the bag, you knew the game was up for someone.

: Anyone else heard this explanation?

Yes. That one theory. To read others, search the discussion archives under "bag." Here's one explanation posted by Mr. Briggs:

To let the cat out of the bag is said to occur if a secret is revealed. This type of cat is truly furry, unlike that just described. In medieval times piglets were often taken to market in a sack where they were sold. If the purchaser was particularly gullible he was sometimes sold not a piglet, but a cat in the sack. Cats are versatile animals and sometimes managed to escape - the cat was truly out of the bag. In similar manner it was possible to be sold a pup. Incidentally, the sack or bag was correctly termed a poke, hence a pig in a poke. To be sold a pig in a poke was clearly the object of the exercise and why it has come to imply a swindle I can't understand. However, there are other sayings and words which have reversed their meanings over the years. Why this should be so is not understood but this drift of meaning is known as catachresis. A good example of drift is found in the word Brave. In the past it implied cowardice as, indeed, Bravado still does. Incidentally, the diminutive of poke lives on today in modern English in the form of Pocket.