Okay, so be honest.
When you saw the title, how many of you said, “Well, duh...”?
|An early in-print use of the phrase.|
Image: Wikimedia Commons
As you well know, cats will look - and go - just about anywhere they please. Which, of course, explains why cats were used to express this proverb's particular meaning.
The Oxford Dictionary defines it this way, “Even a person of low status has rights.”
The McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms expounds a bit more on its meaning:
"No one is so important that an ordinary person cannot look at him or her; everyone has the right to be curious about important people.”
Personally, we prefer the original. What a succinct and elegant way to sum up this concept!
Like many such phrases, its exact origin is unknown. But we did trace its first known use in print to a compilation of proverbs by John Heywood, back in 1562.
And, correct us if we're wrong, but it sounds as if Mr. Heywood's interpretation back in the day might have been a bit different. And not exactly socially acceptable today:
“Some hear and see him whom he heareth nor seeth not
But fields have eyes and woods have ears, ye wot
And also on my maids he is ever tooting.
Can ye judge a man, (quoth I), by his looking?
What, a cat may look on a king, ye know!
My cat's leering look, (quoth she), at first show,
Showeth me that my cat goeth a caterwauling;
And specially by his manner of drawing
To Madge, my fair maid.”
~ John Heywood, The Proverbs and Epigrams of John Heywood, 1562.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2002.
The Proverbs and Epigrams of John Heywood, BiblioBazaar, 2008.