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I became interested in the expression but can’t find out whether it has original or common forms. Why is it a cat?

From the very first note she was horribly, hopelessly, irretrievably off key, and with each high note the problems were exaggerated. “Good God,” I would yell to myself, “you’re flatter than a mashed cat!” (The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart)

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he he. It's always a cat getting swung, mashed or precipitated! –  Lucas Mar 21 '12 at 4:41

3 Answers 3

up vote 1 down vote accepted

As others have pointed out, it's not a popular phrase.

Why a cat? Why not a possum, or a skunk?

When I read the metaphor, I immediately assumed it was a pun on the word "flat," and an allusion to roadkill (in other words, "You're flatter than a run-over animal!" - which doesn't read nearly as vivid as the original "mashed cat").

No way to tell for sure, I guess, unless Mr. Carhart frequents this forum.

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I have never heard this phrase before. I compared it to another phrase regarding thickness, and the results show that it's not very popular as compared to flat as a pancake:

After that, I checked to see if it had any results:

Nope. I would say that it's safe to say that this is not a common phrase.

I also tried Googling things like "flatter than a mashed" (that one turned up four results) and "flatter than a mashed cat" (which turned up 2 results), so I can't find any related phrases.

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I don't think you will find any related usages for "flatter than" collocated with any kind of "cat". Apart from being "icky" in any literal usage I'm sure "mashed cats" are only metaphorically (and rarely, even at that) referenced in terms of their yowling, or belligerent attitude. –  FumbleFingers Mar 21 '12 at 4:18
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It's a play on the word flat- musically meaning to be off-key by having a pitch slightly below the true note's frequency. I don't think Carhart intended the metaphor to compare the yowling aspect of the cat- only its "thinness" –  Jim Mar 21 '12 at 4:54
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@Jim: Feasibly. If Carhart wants to play with a mixture of metaphoric allusions, hes's not obliged to maintain any kind of chronological consistency. I at least can link "cat" to 50s jazz musicians, and "mashed" to current slang for "stoned, intoxicated", which might well cause the cat to play "flat" (below concert pitch). But only thanks to your comment there - I don't think I'd see that in a casual reading. It would be just the thoroughly rolled-out remains of a cat (fox?, rabbit?) on the road for me. –  FumbleFingers Mar 21 '12 at 15:41
    
@FumbleFingers: +1 for an intoxicated 50's jazz musician. It makes me laugh just tihnking about it. –  Jim Mar 21 '12 at 23:39
    
@Jim: Absolutely - as I understand it, mashed usually means seriously under the influence of alcohol, whereas those jazz musos were more likely to be baked on cannabis (or addicted to opiates). But as I said in my answer, Carhart's a creative writer so he's got artistic license. Whatever - it's impossible to say how much of what we find in his text was consciously put there by him. "The text is all", as we post-modernists say. –  FumbleFingers Mar 22 '12 at 0:05

To scream/squall like a mashed cat is a pretty rare turn of phrase, but it accounts for most of the 75 instances of "mashed cat" in Google Books.

Of those 75, the only one I see making any reference to said cat being "flat" is OP's citation. Almost all the others refer to it being angry/howling. Perhaps Carhart chose "cat" because he'd heard "mashed cat" before, in that different context.

It makes little difference whether Carhart knew his usage was "non-standard" for the term - he's a creative writer. As @Jim says, "flat" here primarily means off-key (singing at too low a pitch), but with the obvious allusion to a "squashed" cat being physically flat (as a pancake).

Possibly he intended an oblique comparison between an off-key singer and a screaming/yowling "mashed cat". It's also possible he's alluding to "cats" as jazz musicians from a generation or two ago, and to "mashed" in the modern sense of stoned, intoxicated (a musician in that state might well play flat). But we're getting into realms of Lit. Crit. there, beyond the scope of ELU.

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Irrelevant? Perhaps. Then again, I suspect it was probably deliberate. One way to make the written word come alive is through original figurative language. The author could have used the more familiar "flatter than a pancake", but that would have read much more, well, flat. (I'm agreeing with you, save for the fact that I'd call it "brilliant" before I called it "irrelevant"). –  J.R. Mar 21 '12 at 10:21
    
@J.R.: Definitely "irrelevant". Given how rare even the most "common" usage ("scream like a mashed cat)" is, it stands to reason few readers would pick up on the allusion. I agree Carhart's usage is quite evocative, but to most readers it'll quite simply call to mind a long-dead, repeatedly driven-over, exceptionally flat bit of feline roadkill. The agonised howling of a not-quite-dead cat hit by a car just won't occur to them, whether Carhart knew of it or not. –  FumbleFingers Mar 21 '12 at 15:31

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