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I heard the expression "cat's in the cradle" for the first time in the song by the band Ugly Kid Joe, I though at first that it was just something they came up with and I did not think there was any common meaning to that. But, couple of days ago I heard this expression again in a TV series. Does anyone know what this means?

  • 8
    "The Cat's in the Cradle" is an old Harry Chapin song, and I've always assumed that that particular phrase originated with the song. But "cat's cradle" is a much older term for a yo-yo trick. I'm not aware of any "deep" meaning behind that. – Hot Licks Mar 22 '17 at 22:46
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    You can find a plethora of possibilities if you look at the Wikipedia disambiguation page for cat's cradle. – Hot Licks Mar 22 '17 at 22:54
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    I had forgotten that "cat's cradle" is the term commonly used to refer to a string figure game/hobby often engaged in by children. I'm guessing that it's a practice that's just about died out, what with board games and TV and Legos and computer games and iPhones. I haven't seen anyone engage in the practice for probably 55 years. – Hot Licks Mar 23 '17 at 2:48
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    @HotLicks I knew some people who played (or whatever it is you do with) cat's cradle like 15 years ago (and we were kids). – JMac Mar 23 '17 at 10:54
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    @HotLicks I played Cat's Cradle when I was in school, and have played it with my children – we even have a book that came with a loop of string and shows various patterns, like this one – but they have never played it on the playground with their peers. They also seem to have lost clapping games and most jump-rope games/rhymes. All of these were passed along at the playground level, though, so it's possible that this rural school never had them the way my inner-city school did, or lost them much longer ago than my childhood. – 1006a Mar 23 '17 at 15:40
34

I may have been missing something here, but my interpretation was that the chorus (of the song Cat's in the Cradle) was referencing childrens stories. Presumably ones that the father in the story never had time to read to the child.

The silver spoon is assumed to be the one the dish ran away with.

Little Boy Blue was Published in L. Frank Baum's first children's book, Mother Goose in Prose (1897)

The man in the moon is a nursery rhyme

The line 'The Cat's in the Cradle was, to my mind, a reference to 'The Cats and the Cradle', a Dutch Fairy tale

Without knowing the context of how it was used in the tv show, it's hard to know whether they were simply referring to the song, or if they intended meaning from the Fairy Tale the song is (I believe) referring to.

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    This seems to be a correct answer. Little Boy Blue, and Man in the Moon are references to nursery rhymes. Silver spoon may refer to the gift that was customary to make for the baby at the christening or birthday.. still today Silver Spoon is a metaphor of "wealthy". And finally, I think the cat referred in the song is the baby itself. – roetnig Mar 23 '17 at 11:59
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    How are the fairy tales referenced in the song are relevant? The question is asking what "Cat's in the Cradle" refers to in popular culture. In my experience that has always been a reference to the song itself, not the fairy tales in the song. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Mar 23 '17 at 15:33
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    @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft It answers the question in the title, which is what readers here were curious about when they clicked the link to this question. – Muhd Mar 24 '17 at 4:36
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    The title, and text of the question ask "what does cats in the cradle" mean, not 'what are people referring to'. Ultimately, I guess my answer to the question is "it means relatively little - people are referencing a song, which was in turn referencing a book. In the book, the cats were literal cats who got swept away in a literal cradle." – Scott Mar 24 '17 at 5:55
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    Also, it seems more likely to me that cat's cradle would refer to the children's game with a string on your fingers? Its popularity and how wide spread it was seems to make it a far more likely candidate, unless I'm underestimating how well known the fairy tale would be. (going by information online though, I don't think I am) – Grismar Sep 18 '17 at 22:02
18

snopes.com discusses an (obviously untrue) urban myth about cats smothering new born babies, so cat is in the cradle may be a reference to that old wives tale, with the implication that a cat in the cradle is dangerous and implies the baby is forgotten and neglected.

CLAIM: Cats suck the breath from babies, sometimes killing them. FALSE.
The idea that a cat could suck the breath of an infant is simply a misguided notion — cats just don’t do that. It is said the smell of milk on the child’s breath draws the feline in for the kill, but anyone who has been around housecats knows the average moggie doesn’t much care for the liquid. (Given free choice between plain water and a bowl of milk, cats generally head for the water unless milk has been the only liquid offered to them from weaning onwards. Put more simply, unless the cat has been taught to like milk, it generally won’t seek out that substance on its own.)

Another theory advanced as to why a cat would want to harm a baby relates to the jealousy the pet will supposedly experience when the little bundle from heaven is brought into the household. No longer the center of attention, the neglected pet is allegedly capable of setting about to get rid of what it sees as the usurper. This theory is of far more recent coinage than the bit of lore it purports to explain, though, coming into fashion no earlier than the 20th century (while the “smother” belief dates to at least the 1700s).

In 1791 a jury at a coroner’s inquest in England rendered a verdict to the effect that a Plymouth child had met his death by a cat sucking out its breath. The superstition itself is older, with print sightings of it recorded from 1607 and 1708, so that 1791 verdict should be viewed with the realization that the jury was probably influenced by a snippet of “everybody knows” lore when it came time to explain a death for which there was no apparent cause.

Note: this answer is now completely rewritten after Jason C noticed problems with the Wikipedia article that I had originally referenced.

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    Wau, thanks, that's very interesting! As soon as I am able to upvote I will. ^^ – GileBrt Mar 22 '17 at 22:53
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    As someone who is allergic to cats, I have no trouble working out where this belief came from. – Simon B Mar 22 '17 at 23:13
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    Doubt this was the meaning in this song, at all – roetnig Mar 23 '17 at 11:27
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    @roetnig - The point isn't suffocation, it's inattentive parenting – precisely what the song is about. – J.R. Mar 23 '17 at 14:47
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    Note that the section this was quoted from in wikipedia is marked as "This section possibly contains original research" and contains no citations. The paragraph starting with "While most of the song is fairly literal", which includes this quote, was added by user Thue only 4 days ago with no sources. So this answer is nothing more than an echo of a brand new opinion from a random person who doesn't have much credibility on the subject. – Jason C Mar 24 '17 at 15:15
17

The expression was made popular by a song by Harry Chapin. The song was actually written by Chapin's wife Sandy, a poet and a writer. She wrote the words for the song for their son Joshua before he was born.

It refers to the importance of developing a good relationship between father and son (emphasis mine)

The phrase "Cats in the Cradle" is a familiar one to most everyone, but it is a phrase that brings about mixed emotions. Is the cat being in the cradle a good thing or a bad thing? Does the image bring about feelings of family and childhood or danger and death?

American singer/songwriter Harry Chapin's famous song has made the phrase famous. "Cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man on the moon..." The song was actually written by Chapin's wife Sandy, a poet and a writer. She wrote the words for the song for their son Joshua before he was born. She showed them to her husband but Chapin wasn't too interested in it at the time. However, once his son was born, Chapin realized the power of the words and what they meant to him personally. He recorded the song and it became the best known of all of his work.

"Cat's in the Cradle" tells the story of a father who is too busy to spend time with his growing son. Despite the fact that the father is constantly putting off quality time with his son, the son sees his father as a role model and a fine example of who he wants to grow up to be. In the end the son does grow up to be just like the father and as the aging patriarch reaches out to his son for quality time, his boy is simply to busy with his family.

  • And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
  • Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
  • "When you coming home, dad?" "I don't know when,
  • But we'll get together then.
  • You know we'll have a good time then.".

The refrain uses the phrase "cat's in the cradle" and these words bring up images of a young family and the short and sweet the time of infancy. However, a cat in the cradle wasn't always a warm and fuzzy image.

(Rebecca K. O'Connor, www.petplace.com)

The song is from 1974 and the expression spread around that date as suggested by Ngram.

  • 1
    So is it a reference to the idea that cats sit on babies' faces and smother them? – MissMonicaE Mar 23 '17 at 12:46
  • @MissMonicaE - if you read the whole post, that old idea you cite might be somewhat related, but there is no clear connection. – user66974 Mar 23 '17 at 13:22
  • Don't necessarily seek literal meaning in poetry and lyrics. Words can have a strange power outside their usual contexts. – nigel222 Mar 23 '17 at 16:21
  • I think there are two issues with the quote here. The major issue is you've quoted the article out of context and misrepresented it the source. The article, if you read it fully, does not present this as the meaning of the idiom. The article is actually the article's author presenting a number of alternate theories (this is one), reflecting on the topic, then asking the reader what they think the meaning is. That is, the article you linked to is just another person with the same question as the OP, using this as a point in their question. – Jason C Mar 26 '17 at 13:54
  • The second issue is minor: The song lyrics aren't quoted in the article, they appear to have been added here. – Jason C Mar 26 '17 at 13:54
10

Cat's cradle is a cooperative game in which two people transfer looped string back and forth, stretching it into shapes that loosely resemble various objects. See example here. Often, at least one of the players is a child. I remember pairs of girls playing it when I was a kid. Kurt Vonnegut named his 1963 novel after the game.

I can't specify the exact relation between the game, the superstition about cats suffocating babies (of which I had been unaware), and the thoughts that inspired the Chapins' song, but a cradle is a symbol of infancy, and the game is a symbol of childhood, as well as shared pleasure. These all resonate with the song's theme.

4

In my experience, when the phrase "Cat's in the Cradle" is used in popular culture, it's always a reference to the Harry Chapin song (which the Ugly Kid Joe song is a cover of).

The lyrics can be found here.

The tl;dr: the father never has time for his son, but when he retires and suddenly has time, the son is an adult and doesn't have time for him. He realizes "my boy grew up just like me".

So the meaning is something like "make time for your children" or "don't prioritize work over family".

As a slight aside, here's a relevant (and hilarious) scene from Bojack Horseman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sutCGnIZu3c#t=0m32s

1

Song 1974? I was familiar with this expression as a child (70 years ago) in relation to the string game. Cats suffocating babies? Warned of this when putting first born outside in pram in good weather. Not the sucking, but cat curling up against face of sleeping child.

1

Since I haven't offered an answer yet, and I feel that a lot of the discussion here deserves protection from the comment deleting monster, here it is:


"The Cat's in the Cradle" is an old Harry Chapin song, and I've always assumed that that particular phrase originated with the song. But "cat's cradle" is a much older term for a yo-yo trick. I'm not aware of any "deep" meaning behind that. – Hot Licks Mar 22 at 22:46

I wasn't aware the song was originally by Harry Chapin, thanks! :) – GileBrt Mar 22 at 22:52

You can find a plethora of possibilities if you look at the Wikipedia disambiguation page for cat's cradle. – Hot Licks Mar 22 at 22:54

I had forgotten that "cat's cradle" is the term commonly used to refer to a string figure game/hobby often engaged in by children. I'm guessing that it's a practice that's just about died out, what with board games and TV and Legos and computer games and iPhones. I haven't seen anyone engage in the practice for probably 55 years. – Hot Licks Mar 23 at 2:48

This is weirdly interesting. – Hot Licks Mar 23 at 2:59

A book Cat's Cradle from 1881: amazon.com/Cats-Cradle-Children-Edward-Willett/dp/B0010P048C – Hot Licks Mar 23 at 3:02

This gives some interesting history: interesting history – Hot Licks Mar 23 at 3:06

@HotLicks I knew some people who played (or whatever it is you do with) cat's cradle like 15 years ago (and we were kids). – JMac Mar 23 at 10:54

@JMac - Well, our kids didn't play it, nor any of their friends that I know of. You needed to be taught by someone, and that was generally an older kid or that strange aunt of yours. I learned it a bit from Liz down the street -- she had a fairly large family. I may also have played it a bit in elementary school -- my recollection is pretty vague there. – Hot Licks Mar 23 at 12:01

Before we get moved to chat for being, well, chatty, there's another book called String Figures and How to Make Them: A Study of Cat's Cradle in Many Lands that has history of the string game as well as instructions for making various patterns and games. I've had my copy since the early 1970s. – shoover Mar 23 at 14:10

@HotLicks I played Cat's Cradle when I was in school, and have played it with my children – we even have a book that came with a loop of string and shows various patterns, like this one – but they have never played it on the playground with their peers. They also seem to have lost clapping games and most jump-rope games/rhymes. All of these were passed along at the playground level, though, so it's possible that this rural school never had them the way my inner-city school did, or lost them much longer ago than my childhood. – 1006a Mar 23 at 15:40

@Hot Licks - My kids play it fairly frequently. It's one of the regularly recurring fads at their primary school, along with Clash of Clans, spinning tops, football cards, Subway Surfers, football, and origami. – Jeremy Mar 24 at 13:04


I think that, all put together, that's a fairly complete answer.

0

An expression used as a respond when someone passes the millionth raincheck for a get-together or date. Derives from the Harry Chapin song "Cat's in the Cradle", telling the story of a father who never has time for his son and when the son grows up, he never has time for his father.

For further examples, check the following link: Urban Dictionary

  • Today's current score of 68 up-votes and 14 down-votes on Urban Dictionary is not a strong reference. – k1eran Mar 23 '17 at 11:45
  • This answer doesn't explain the origin of the term. Anyone over about age 20 has surely heard the song several times. – Hot Licks Mar 23 '17 at 12:06
  • I am over 70 and never heaqrd the song. :) – Izabella Mar 28 '17 at 20:48

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