Thursday, November 8, 2012
Thursday Trivia: Let the cat out of the bag
According to the website, Mental Floss, "the first documented use of the phrase in the sense of 'revealing a secret' comes from a book review in a 1760 issue of The London Magazine, wherein the reviewer laments that, 'We could have wished that the author had not let the cat out of the bag.' That, unfortunately, is about all we know for sure."
They go on to tell us about one possible yet unconfirmable origin:
"The first origin story claims the phrase refers to the cat o’ nine tails, infamously used by the Royal Navy as an instrument of punishment aboard its ships. The whip’s nine knotted cords could scratch an undisciplined sailor’s back pretty badly, hence its feline nickname. The bag comes into play because the “cat,” being made of leather, had to be kept in a sack to protect it from drying out in the salty sea air and keep it flexible. Removing a whip from a sack doesn’t immediately seem to have anything to do with revealing a secret (that the lash was on board the ship and would be readily used shouldn’t have been a secret to any sailor), but if you think of “letting the cat out of the bag” as a revelation that results in a punishment, it makes a little more sense."
Snopes is skeptical though, and offers this possible explanation:
"[Perhaps] "letting the cat out of the bag" was always meant as no more than an entertaining mental image of the explosiveness of a confidence's revelation — usually what is deliberately concealed is of a salacious or titillating nature, thus there are often huge elements of shock and surprise when the truth comes out, somewhat akin to the commotion raised by a frightened cat suddenly loosed from the bag that had imprisoned it. Or it could have to do with a similarity between the behavior of both secrets and cats — once either is let out, they go wherever they want. (In other words, private news that has been made public spreads far and wide, despite all efforts to keep it contained.)"
We're taking bets - where do you think the phrase originated?
Sources: Mental Floss and Snopes