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Let the cat out of the bag

Posted by R. Berg on September 06, 2002

In Reply to: Let the cat out of the bag posted by TheFallen on September 05, 2002

: : This is actually an old naval term. The cat refers to the cat-o-nine tails, which was a braided whip, that was used to whip sailors for various infractions. It was called the cat because of the scratches it would leave behind. The "cat" was kept in a bag and when it came out, of course, bad things happened. The source for this was a recent article in the New Yorker, about the retracing of the route James Cook took in his attempt to find the new world.

: This doesn't make sense to me. In my opinion, the meaning of "letting the cat out of the bag" is far closer to "revealing (and usually accidentally) a hidden piece of information to a hitherto unwitting third party". Of course, the results of such a revelation indeed invariably take the form of an angry argument.

: However, I don't see where this definite implication of a secret accidentally revealed and ensuing general chaos is present, if the phrase comes from pulling a naval whip out of its storage bag.

: If you search the archives on "cat", you'll find discussions on other cat phrases that allude to archery practice with cats in bottles or bags, and possibly most tellingly, the following information from a discussion on "no room to swing a cat", courtesy of James Briggs:-

: *snip*
: 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.
: *end snip*

: The above would make a lot more sense to me, because if a cat is let out of a bag full of soot, the resulting furious chaos is liable to affect everyone in the area.

I saw that article in the New Yorker, and I was disappointed that the author presented the cat-o'-nine-tails explanation without checking it. He should have come to Phrase Finder first.

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