On my website, I have a page called ‘Snippets’, which are — to me — interesting little bits of research. I’ve decided that when I retire a snippet from the site, I’ll archive it here.
Here’s the first one:
Ever heard the phrase, ‘room to swing a cat’?
I decided to be clever and changed it to ‘room
to swing a rat’. It turns out that the ‘cat’ in question
is a cat o’ nine tails. The phrase does indeed refer to a small
space, but it originated with the British navy. A sailor was flogged
not in the brig but on the deck where there was room to effectively swing the whip.
There is a theory that ‘letting the cat out of the bag’
also refers to a cat o’ nine tails, which was generally kept in a canvas bag. However, Partridge’s Historical of Dictionary Slang explains the phrase as meaning the giving away of a secret or a trick. Keepers of market stalls frequently duped gullible customers by handing over a bag that supposedly contained a valuable piglet or chicken (buying a pig in a poke, perhaps) but which instead contained only a worthless feline. To expose the fraud was to let the cat out of the bag.