17

It seems that many (often pejorative) terms that are typically used to refer to women refer themselves to cats:


When a woman insults people for petty reasons, she's described as catty, whereas a man who exhibits the same behavior would most likely not be described that way. (For what it's worth, the Urban Dictionary entry for "catty" says it can be used for both males and females, but in practice, it seems to be used almost exclusively for females. For example, Wiktionary defines it as "with subtle hostility in an effort to hurt, annoy or upset, particularly among women [emphasis mine]" and lists "bitchy," another feminine term, as a synonym.)

When two women get into a fight, it's called a catfight (even though literal cat fights are most common between unneutered males.)

When an older woman romantically or sexually pursues a younger man, she's called a cougar.


Is there a reason that terms that reference cats are more likely to be used to refer to women? The only other connections I can find that exist solely between women and cats are the "crazy cat lady" stereotype (which is sometimes used metaphorically to refer to any single woman past a certain age, even if she doesn't own any cats, so it could very well be added to the above list of terms) and the cat goddesses that were worshiped in ancient Egypt (which don't seem a likely source of so many negative terms, since they were viewed in a positive light).

Does anyone have any insight into the origin of these terms? Was there some initial figure of speech linking women and cats that all the other terms derived themselves from, or did various women-as-cats terms develop separately from each other for some other reason?

  • 3
    I think it is a cultural old issue: Women and cats have quite a history. We go back a long way, and have a lot in common – witches, goddesses, a dislike of rats. But perhaps the biggest thing we share is our history of being persecuted by the church. Which may help explain the present-day woman-cat bond – the one you see, for example, in the cliché of the little old lady with 25 cats: after what we’ve been through, we still want to look out for each other. threewisewomen.wordpress.com/2012/01/12/… – user66974 Aug 3 '16 at 23:04
  • 3
    On a more popular note: Why Women Are Like Cats And Men Are Like Dogs - returnofkings.com/35965/… – user66974 Aug 3 '16 at 23:08
  • 6
    There are also tiger mums (are tiger dads a thing?), and veering into the vulgar, there's also pussy (also in the sense ‘an old puss’). But it's not just cats, of course: bitchy is dogs (though there we have dawg for men as well), fox(y) and vixen are both foxes, shrew is a mouse(-ish), cow is cattle, bat is Chiroptera, bird is, well, birds, etc. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 3 '16 at 23:10
  • 2
    I think this question is based on a false premise. In my vernacular we might say She's a right dog!, She's a right pig!, or She's a right cow!, but I doubt I've ever heard anyone say She's a right cat! – FumbleFingers Aug 3 '16 at 23:30
  • 2
    As Whorf pointed out, and as every owner of a male cat can testify, in English cat is covertly marked as female, like ships, cannons, trains, and various other non-human nouns. Similarly, dog is covertly marked as male. – John Lawler Aug 4 '16 at 0:14
10

First my "coincidence" answer

Animal metaphors for people are common. Cats are a familiar species and likely to be the source of many and varied metaphors (see also farm animals and dogs, but note that cats are more independent than either and thus more suitable as a metaphor for a person with agency). It's quite likely that (in a strongly gendered society) there will be a bias towards references to one gender; this bias will tend to be reinforced by usage).

Now the (not mutually exclusive) answer based on sexism

Cats, in contrast to dogs, are seen as cunning, employing trickery rather than good honest brute force, as well as sleeping a lot. Their sounds are also either high-pitched or gently soothing (though purring can be a sign of fear), while dogs make more aggressive noises. Cats are also prone to appearing as if by magic and to staring at things people can't see (a little fly in front of their nose but the other side of the room from their human) as if watching fairies. These all fit with human gender stereotypes, where clever women were seen as manipulative and/or witches, and women who worked hard behind closed doors seen as lazy daydreamers.

Thus many of the traits associated with women are similar to those associated with cats. While foxes display some of the same traits, they're less familiar and when confronted with an angry human male will flee while a (fully domesticated) cat will purr and stick around.

This is of course speculative; to back this up with usage would be tricky as we're going back a long time in a case where oral patterns matter.

Some history

Etymonline dates "catty" to 1886 without gender as "devious and spiteful" (ngrams shows plenty of earlier use).

Oxforddictionaries.com has "she-cat" as (¹a female cat or) ²a spiteful woman, with the origin given as "Late 16th century; earliest use found in Thomas Lupton (fl. 1572–1584), political and religious controversialist." It's not completely clear that this first use applies to the second meaning.

Shakespeare can normally be called upon for colourful descriptions of both men and women, but despite his "using them as metaphorical tools to express the opinions of women and to describe women’s nature" (basically a blog) the uses I can find aren't general about women; some are about men: opensourceshakespeare.org search results for "cat".

A few centuries later, Dickens appeared to like his cats (in fact he had his own cat stuffed after it died) but his uses seem to have been alomst all literal; the few figurative uses I've are as likely to apply to men as women.

This has been studied

If you have journal access, the cat as a metaphor has been studied:

  • comparing English and Malay with no mention of gender (but the bibliography looks helpful).
  • A study of English and Spanish use of anmial metaphors for women. The section starting

    3.1. Women as pets

    Within the animal world, pets enjoy a privileged position. In fact, pets are not conceived of as beasts of burden nor are they killed for their meat or skin. On the contrary, pets share the same roof as their owners and their main function is to keep people company. This benevolent attitude towards pets finds its way into the English language, for the very word pet is used as a term of endearment

is likely to be of particular interest (some woman-cat metaphors have Spanish counterparts).

  • I do hope to find some sources to back this up. There are things I've read recently that may help if I can track them down and if they're well-sourced. – Chris H Aug 4 '16 at 7:04
  • 1
    +1 From Etomonline, cat "As a term of contempt for a woman, from early 13c. Slang sense of "prostitute" is from at least c. 1400.". If I weren't preparing for a trip I would pursue the connection between cats as familiars of witches, who are Satanic creatures, and women who serve Satan's purpose by leading pure, helpless man astray. (Note sarcasm, please.!) Nonsensical as this is to most of us, this connection was valid in mediaeval times – ab2 Aug 10 '16 at 18:58
2

Many feminine traits resemble the traits of cats, with one of the most glaring being flexibility. Cats appear to be very flexible, and increased flexibility is one of the few consistent biological differences between men and women.

When you add to that the host of culturally feminine behaviours that resemble cat behaviours, the association was inevitable.

2

Can of worms, this. Cats have graceful, sinewy ways of moving which I'm guessing the majority of men do not associate with their own sex. Dogs on the other hand clump along and plop down like barrels with legs, more reminiscent of human male locomotion. Cats are notorious disregarders of hierarchy and authority, in contrast to dogs (and men) who, in any situation, are keen to sniff out the hierarchy and fill any power vacuum in the offing (cats are nature's anarchists). I think some men suspect women of greater powers of perception than they themselves have (don't lie to women), and cats likewise have an appraising sort of predator gaze that might be uncomfortable to the insecure. You can't herd cats and women likewise are perhaps less amenable to regimentation. Of course, I generalize. I expect you can find just as many contrasts as comparisons. I have heard "you dog!" used in approbation from one male to another.

1

Interesting question!

There is a common childhood misconception that children often have where they believe that all dogs are male, and all cats are female. Dogs and cats are really just the same animal, and when they mate, all their male offspring are puppies, and all their female offspring are kittens.

This belief is incorrect, of course, and children are usually informed of their mistake at a fairly young age (often at the amusement of their parents).

Personally, I'm both amused and fascinated by this misconception, as it seems to reveal that innately, we humans as a whole tend to associate dogs with masculinity, and cats with femininity.

(As for why we do, I'm not really sure. Maybe it has to do with the fact that cats tend to be graceful and flexible, in a way we associate with women. But to be honest, I think this is speculation best left for another topic or forum.)

However accurate or inaccurate, this association still exists in our minds, and as a result some expressions in the English language have grown out of this. Expressions just like you mentioned, like "catty" and "cat-fight."

As you've noted, some expressions (like "catty") are not necessarily limited to the female gender, but in practice its majority use is towards females. I've noticed that the term "cat burglar" is not limited to females, but maybe as a consequence of cats being associated with females, cat burglars in entertainment media are over-represented as being female.

The association of cats/felines with femininity is likely a cultural idea -- not so much a linguistic one. But whatever the reason behind the association, it has had an effect on the English language.

(Personally, I'd be curious to learn if any other languages also seem to have this cat/female bias as well.)

  • 1
    Nice first post here! It might definitely benefit from some citations, but still a very nice answer! – divibisan Apr 4 at 17:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.