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Back in grade school whenever we played a game of Tic-Tac-Toe (X's and O's) and the result was a tie, we would call it a "Cat's Game." I've never heard this term applied to a tie in any other circumstance and was interested in where this term came from and why it seems to be unique to Tic-Tac-Toe.

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I always thought it was because losing boards tend to have a "C" shape in the X's or the O's. –  asmeurer Mar 5 at 22:43
    
@asmeurer Interesting. I always drew a big "C" over the grid if it was a tie, but never really knew why... –  tkendrick20 Mar 5 at 23:26

3 Answers 3

Completely winging it here, I'm going to suggest that Tic-Tac-Toe is typically a childrens' pastime, so it's natural to associate it with The Cat's Cradle Game (a "game" which nobody "wins").

It's worth noting that many/most children are fiercly competitive. If two children are playing Cat's Cradle and it "goes wrong", one might well start complaining vociferously that it was the other's fault, and thus that he somehow "lost".

It's easy to imagine a nearby adult stepping in and defusing the situation by pointing out that Cat's Cradle isn't a "win/lose" sort of game. It would thus be quite natural for the children to figuratively refer to that "no winner" game later, when Tic-Tac-Toe ends in a draw.


The earliest reference I can find for this usage is from 1952, and implies it probably wasn't a "recent coinage" at that time.

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The odd thing about the 1952 source (which is from the American Dialect Society) is that it appears as part of what appears to be a questionnaire to determine regional word-choice differences. The entry (#55) that includes the term "cat's game" shows a partially completed game of tic-tac-toe and then offers the interviewee the following fill-in-the-blank options: 'This is a game of _________. cat and rat/naughts and crosses/ tick-tack-toe/ tit-tat-toe. If it works out so that neither "X" nor "O" wins, you say it is ________. cat's game/a tie/'. –  Sven Yargs Mar 5 at 18:46
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The question I have is whether there is any connection between the Western U.S. regional term "cat and rat" for tic-tac-toe and "cat's game" for a draw in the game. Is the idea that, in a draw, the cat must simply wait patiently for another chance to catch the rat in a mistake? –  Sven Yargs Mar 5 at 18:48
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Huh? That's a stretch though I suppose anything's possible. :-) –  Kristina Lopez Mar 5 at 19:20
    
@Sven: I can't see the full context, but what I do see in the Books "snippet view" is... tick-tack-toe/tit-tat-toe/ If it works out so that neither "X" nor "O" wins, you say it is . cat's game/a tie/ 56 Other games played on paper or a blackboard by two people: tick- tack-toe, hangman, battleship. I think it's unlikely that "The American Dialect Society: A Historical Sketch" would have been punlishing a "questionaire" like that. It's simply using slashes to separate alternatives/variations, just as we do all the time today. –  FumbleFingers Mar 5 at 21:54
    
You can see all of #55 in the snippet at books.google.com/… (unless your browser gives a different view than mine does, which is possible). I guessed that this was part of some sort of questionnaire because #56 follows up by offering options for "Other games played on paper or a blackboard by two people: tick- tack-toe, hangman, battleship" and #57 addresses "Table games played with dice: cootie, bunco, backgammon." –  Sven Yargs Mar 5 at 22:09

The "best answer" on Yahoo regarding this subject refers to it as a "cat trying to catch its tail." The analogy is that a cat won't win the game of trying to catch its tail, and you can't win a tied game of Tic Tac Toe.

This seems plausible, but then again, I've seen plenty of cats catch their tails.

LMGTFY Source

Another source suggests that Tac spelled backwards is cat, and cats scratch. And, since the game is a scratch . . .

LMGTFY Source #2

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My cat can catch his tail. –  Oldcat Mar 5 at 19:55
    
@Oldcat Isn't it slavery if you own another cat? –  David M Mar 5 at 19:58
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Rules don't apply to cats. –  Oldcat Mar 5 at 20:06
    
I think this is rather unlikely, because while searching for the earliest relevant instance in Google Books, I had to ignore an awful lot where cat's game effectively meant playing cat and mouse - a somewhat gruesome "game" played by cats, that mice don't so much "play" as "endure". Until the cat gets bored, at which point the mouse definitely loses, because he's almost certain to be killed and in most cases eaten. –  FumbleFingers Mar 5 at 21:59

I always took it as a sort of dismissal of the game. When you think about the games that a cat would play, such as batting around a toy, or chasing it's own tail, there is no win condition. So basically it is saying "That is a game that served no purpose".

Apparently on the broader scale tic-tac-toe has always had a connotation with cats in many different cultures, here is an interesting snippet from a podcast discussing the topic http://www.waywordradio.org/tic-tac-toe-cats-game/

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Awesome, that sheds light on why I've never heard this term in any other circumstance. –  tkendrick20 Mar 5 at 19:13
    
I'm not convinced by this, partly for the reason given against David's substantially similar answer, and partly because although kittens and puppies (and even energetic adult dogs) are stereotypically portrayed as idly playing and chasing their tail, balls of string, sticks, etc., adult cats aren't normally thought of that way. –  FumbleFingers Mar 5 at 22:03
    
"When you think about the games that a cat would play, such as..." chess? I kid you not! I play chess with my cat! Sounds impressive, I know, but it's not: I win most of the time. ;-) –  tobyink Mar 5 at 22:47

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