Re:Swing a cat

Posted by James Briggs on February 16, 2002

In Reply to: Leaning more toward the nautical side posted by Word Camel on February 15, 2002

: : : : : : : No room to swing a cat may come from Mark Twain. I remember him describing a room as being too small to swing a cat in. Possibly in Innocents Abroad.

: : : : : : Here's what I found out about the origin:
: : : : : : If there's not enough room to swing a cat then space is very tight; the room is very tiny. The cat in this instance is said not to be of the Pussy variety but, rather, o'nine tails type. The nine thronged whip was used as punishment at sea. Because space was at a premium below decks there was not enough room to wield the whip; in consequence the whipping always took place on deck.
: : : : : : Evidence against the above origin comes from the fact that the expression was in use in the 1500s and the cat o'nine tails was not invented until the mid 1600s. Thus it may be that the saying truly involves felines, since there used to be a "sport" of swinging cats by their tails as targets for archers.

: : : : :
: : : : : Ah! So does that also give an explanation for the name "cat o'nine tails"?

: : : : : psi

: : : : There *seriously* used to be a sport involving swinging cats by their tails for archery target practice? Now that's just fabulous and I MUST know more. First, was the cat released before the arrow in a combo clay-pigeon/hammer toss style? Or did the luckless catswinger close his eyes and pray that the bowman was both sober and accurate? Mind you, if you were a catswinger, the prospect of an arrow between the eyes probably paled into insignificance at the thought of an enraged spitting biting clawing yowling kitty trying to climb down one's arm - I expect that keeping up some serious revs per minute was an essential, and that centrifugal force was a catswinger's best friend.

: : : : I would love to see a url with documentary evidence of this. I am sure that I could probably get a high-class TV network - Fox for SURE - interested in televising this, so any material would be much welcomed.

: : : According to my research, the cat was not actually swung but imprisoned in a sack, suspended from the limb of a tree. The swinging sack was supposedly used for archery practice. Why this would make an attractive target is beyond me. It seems far more likely to have some connection to the mediaeval practice of imprisoning small animals in clay pots, suspending them on poles then thowing stones at them, or hanging chickens my their feet and hacking them to death with blunt swords (because it's considered a childrens game). And then there is donkey crushing... Actually these practices survive in some isolated parts of Europe. They seems to be more quasi religious rituals than anything to do with honing the ones aim.

: : : In any case, this writer is especially glad this isn't widely practiced today.

: : Small animals in clay pots! Chickens hung by their feet to be hacked at! It's a Marquis de Sade inspired pinata crossover! What an embarras de richesse - Fox will be sure to pay megabucks for this. I wonder if Regis Philbin would agree to host the show?

: This has been preying on my mind. Even if the barbaric cat/archery scenario has some basis in fact, how likely is it that anyone would be practicing archery indoors? The expression really makes most sense when describing something taking place in an interior space. While I suppose it's possible that there could be a throng of people milling around outside somewhere making it impossible for one to swing one's cat, I have to wonder who in their right minds would hang around the target during archery practice?

Although I can't give you a 'url', as requested earlier I can give you Shakespeare. Cats were swung either by their tails, in a sack, or in a leather bottle. Shakespeare, in 'Much Ado About Nothing' (I,i) uses the phrase 'hang me in a bottle like a cat'. There are other references about hanging cats in bags, one such describing a version where the cat was put in a bag filled with soot and hung on a tree. The object of the 'game' was for the competitors to cut open the sack, let the cat free, but not get covered with soot themselves.