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|
“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|
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
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