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I called one of my friends "copycat" the other day, and suddenly thought about it.

Why is it a "cat"? Where did this expression come from?

Does anyone have any information regarding how this phrase came about? Is there a story behind this?

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This article from Slate.com has a good etymologic explanation. –  JLG May 1 '12 at 13:24
    
Although these books use the expression, it seems that this phrase has actually already been in use, the way the author wrote it without putting "" around the word copycat, which seems to assume that the reader knows what the author is writing about. –  Bidella May 1 '12 at 13:28
    
I had the same thought when I asked my question about "moth hour" a while back. Its first published use by a poet must have meant it was already in use in the vernacular. That, it seems, is harder to track down. –  JLG May 1 '12 at 13:32
    
@JLG, Incidentally the term is really copy monkey in Japanese –  Pacerier Jan 24 at 11:13

4 Answers 4

I have been thinking of this term 'copycat' for a while - it could be an expression deriving from the previous saying: 'curiosity killed the cat' - Since cats are very curious, one cat will follow another cat to see what it is doing or playing with and will no doubt copy/imitate its actions - ie; one cat plays with a small object. Cat lovers who own two cats will certainly confirm this.

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This is a slang term and was likely used in speech for a long time before being committed to the page, but the first print copy can still give us a rough idea of origin. Etymonline.com tells us:

copycat (n.)
by 1884, Amer.Eng., probably at least a generation older, from copy + cat. As a verb, from 1932.

This Ngram tends to agree, with some instances before 1900, fairly constant use for most of the 20th century, but then a huge increase in the 1980s.

Ngram of copy cat,copy-cat,copycat

The OED's earliest citation is Jewett's 1896, so I've sent them the Harrison 1887 and Jewett 1890 antedatings from the Slate article.

An article in Slate Magazine tells us the term came from nineteenth-century Maine.

Constance Cary Harrison's 1887 quasi-memoir Bar Harbor Days contains the first written evidence of the term copycat—that we know of, anyway. "Our boys say you are a copy cat, if you write in anything that's been already printed." Another early example comes from a different Maine-born writer, Sarah Orne Jewett, in her 1890 novel Betty Leicester: A Story for Girls. "I wouldn't be such a copy-cat," Lizzie French tells Betty, upon hearing that Betty wants to start a second all-girls club. Jewett used it again in her 1896 novel Country of Pointed Firs, about an elderly landlady in small-town coastal Maine who tells her friend Mrs. Fosdick, "In these days, the young folk is all copy-cats, 'fraid to death they won't be all just alike." Mrs. Fosdick's response suggests that the term had been part of the spoken vernacular for some time: "I ain't heard of a copy-cat this great many years," said Mrs. Fosdick, laughing; " 'twas a favorite term o' my grandmother's."

The OED's earliest citation is Jewett's 1896, so I've sent them the Harrison 1887 and Jewett 1890 antedatings from Slate Magazine.

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The OED's earliest citation is Jewett's 1896, so I've sent them the Harrison 1887 and Jewett 1890 antedatings from the Slate article. –  Hugo May 21 '12 at 7:03
    
Doug's 1884, could be this which is actually from a 1914 annual report for the Dedham Library and not the original 1884 annual. Wikipedia confirms The Copy-cat and Other Stories was published in 1914. –  Callithumpian May 21 '12 at 12:10
  1. Not good to call a friend a copycat, and if you do, etymology is your least concern
  2. See this Slate article regarding why it's not "copymonkey", etc., especially regarding the time of the origin of "hell-cat"
  3. The origin of the term is unknown and likely unknowable at this point
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"etymology is your poorest defence", rather? –  Kris May 1 '12 at 14:10

The cat in copy-cat means person.

The OED says at copy-cat n.:

Etymology: cat n.1 2.

the referenced sense being:

cat n.1 2. fig. a. As a term of contempt for a human being; esp. one who scratches like a cat; a spiteful or backbiting woman. spec. an itinerant worker (U.S. slang).

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