Thursday, July 25, 2013

Thursday Trivia: The Catbird Seat

The phrase "sitting in the catbird seat" is one that dates back to the 1940's and seems to have originated from the southern United States.

It is said that someone who sits in the catbird seat holds a position of power and advantage. Random House's Word Maven claims it's not only southern but also dates back to the 19th century, thoguh officially listed as "origin unknown".

It's earliest known published reference is in a short story written by James Thurber in 1942, where one of his characters mentions having heard the phrase at a baseball game:

Red Barber, public domain
"In the halls, in the elevator, even in his own office, into which she romped now and then like a circus horse, she was constantly shouting these silly questions at him.

“Are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch? Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you hollering down the rain barrel? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?”

It was Joey Hart, one of Mr. Martin’s two assistants, who had explained what the gibberish meant. “She must be a Dodger fan,” he had said. “Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions — picked ’em up down South.”

- from Catbird Seat by James Thurber, The New Yorker, November 14, 1942

Red Barber was a real person - the announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers' baseball team. And he really did use that phrase.

He told the Saturday Review in a 1958 interview that he'd first heard it in a poker game in Cincinatti, liked it, and decided to use it in his radio broadcasts.

Photo: cuatrok77 via Wikimedia Commons
Interestingly, there really is a bird known as the catbird. And ornithologists tell us that this bird, a member of the mockingbird family, may have come about its name because of its odd call, which sounds almost like a cat mewing.

 As to why the phrase has come to mean someone who holds a position of advantage, World Wide Words tells us it's because of the tendency for the catbird to prefer the highest perch it can find to roost.

That preference for high vantage points - the catbird seat - was considered to be a position of strength, strategically speaking.

(Of course in baseball terms today, we'd call that the nosebleed section...!)

Our personal favorite catbird, however, is the Rutan Catbird - a high efficiency plane that set two world speed records, and as of May 2012, they still held!

A Rutan Model 81 CatBird
Photo: Jim Reid, Creative Commons

World Wide Words
Random House's Word Maven


  1. Another interesting Thursday lesson...I recently photographed a mockingbird sitting "in the catbird seat" and he looked very comfortable there

  2. Now that is one saying we have never heard of. Have a tremendous Thursday.
    Best wishes Molly

  3. I think they should just call it the cat seat!

  4. Well it sounds like you have the catbird seat for this diction day.
    Or is that...

  5. Never heard that expression in Sweden.
    You learn something new efuryday :)

  6. Mom always likes these posts where you teach us something about terms and phrases humans use all the time but have no idea of the origin. She'd heard of an actual catbird, but had given no thought to the saying. Thanks for sharing. Purrs and hugs, Lily Olivia, Mauricio, Misty May, Giulietta, Fiona, Astrid, Lisbeth and Calista Jo

  7. That was a fascinating lesson and we did not know all of those facts!

  8. That's a great story. We didn't know that saying came from Red Barber! He used to live near the head peep in his retirement, and she thought she had heard all of the stories about him. That one is great!

  9. Very interesting! We'd like to get our paws on one of those catbirds so we can sit in its seat!

  10. Never heard of that but that's me I hold the power..BOL xx00xx

    Mollie and Alfie

  11. You learn something new everyday!


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