Posted by Graham on March 20, 2001
In Reply to: There is more than one way to skin a cat posted by ESC on February 01, 2000
: : Can anyone provide information on the origin and original meaning of this phrase.
: I don't have a definitive answer but here's some information. Does anyone else have a take on this? Does the expression come from the little-boy exercise, or vice versa?
: SKIN THE CAT - According to Charles Earle Funk in "A Hog on Ice" (Harper & Row, New York, 1948) the expression "to skin the cat" refers to a boy's gymnastic trick: "In America, as any country boy knows, this means to hang by the hands from a branch or bar, draw the legs up through the arms and over the branch, and pull oneself up into a sitting position. As we must abide by the record, we cannot say positively that the name for this violent small-boy exercise is more than a century old, but it is highly likely that Ben Franklin or earlier American lads had the same name for it. No one got around to putting it into print until about 1845. One can't be sure why the operation was called 'skinning the cat,' but maybe some mother, seeing it for the first time, saw in it some resemblance to the physical operation of removing the pelt from a cat, first from the forelegs and down over the body." Mr. Funk doesn't say WHY anyone would actually skin a cat, but anyway.
: "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996) lists the expression "more than one way to skin a cat" but doesn't really address the origin. Mr. Titelman does say it dates back to the 1678: "MORE THAN ONE WAY TO SKIN A CAT --There are many ways to do something. The proverb appeared in John Ray's collection of English proverbs in 1678, and is first attested in the United States in 'John Smith's Letters' . 'There are more ways to kill a cat besides choking him to death' is a variant of the saying. The words 'with butter' or 'on cream' may replace the words 'to death' in the latter version."
: Tough on cats!!
:It's amazing how little definitive information is available on this subject, but as it has roots in the English language which predate the colonization of the new world I doubt very much that it originates from an American expression of the 19 th century.
The following is an extract from an e-mail dealing with cat oriented phrases sent to the TOWFI (www.takeourword.com) website:-
Without "letting the cat out of the bag" ( a "pig in a poke" was reportedly a cat in a sack sold as a piglet to the unwary, and to let the cat out of the bag was to expose the deception.), I humbly submit that "more than one way to skin a cat" refers to the use of cats in hoodwinking the gullible.
A skinned cat could be passed off as rabbit (let's not dwell on those again), whilst the skin of said cat could be passed off as a more valuable pelt, especially if dyed. So more than one way to skin a cat means more than one way to trick the public out of their money.
Is the cat in The Simpsons called Sowball because of the parallel expressions " Wouldn't stand a cat/snowball in Hells chance", and why would a cat stand no chance in Hell?
Does "not enough room to swing a cat" really refer to the habit of swinging a cat by the tail for indoor pistol target practice? If so who did you find stupid enough to risk being hit by misaimed shots? (let alone grabbing the cat in the first place, or even worse letting it go if the gunman missed).
Cats really got the unpleasant end of the stick, being burned or drowned for their participation in witchcraft, and despite their sterling work in the field of rodent control, were looked down upon as an unnecessary and unpleasant pest.
Cats themselves are resilient, and have a better understanding of their social status, hence "A cat may look at a Queen" (both equals in the cats eyes), and "the cat that got the cream" must consider itself more "the cats whiskers" than "the cats' mother" even if it looks like "something the cat brought/dragged in".
I must take a catnap after all that....