Thursday, January 22, 2015

Thursday Trivia: A cat may look at a king

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. 

We think we prefer Oxford's take on it.


McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2002.
The Proverbs and Epigrams of John Heywood, BiblioBazaar, 2008.


  1. Not a phrase we were ware of. Interesting. Have a tremendous Thursday.
    Best wishes Molly

  2. Cats can look at whoever they want and do whatever they want- is that written somewhere? If not, it should be :)

  3. Just goes to show that men have remained the same well, since there have been men!

  4. I haven't heard of the phrase. But I use "a cat IS a king!" :-)

  5. I am so glad that I wasn't an editor back in those days! Haha!

  6. Turnabout is fair play - it's okay for kings to look at kitties too! We'll let them, as long as they are cat people.

  7. Interesting as usual!
    Over here it's me who is the King :)


  8. Me agrees! Mes thinks Oxford is right!

  9. We didn't know that saying. That's an interesting one.

  10. Very interesting! We love learning new stuff.
    Lola and Lexy

  11. We aren't familiar with this phrase either. But we think a cat may be a king. :)

  12. I don't know this phrase but I do know that I am the queen of the house. That Heywood fellow sure does talk funny.


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