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I'm wondering where the phrase originates.

Who's 'she', the cat's mother?

(idiomatic, somewhat dated, Britain, New England)
A rebuke especially directed towards children for having referred to a woman as "she", instead of using her name or an appropriately respectful title.

"She's coming on the trip with us too!"
"Who's 'she', the cat's mother?"
"Sorry, gran is coming with us too."

wiktionary

From grammarphobia.com, etc., can see it goes back to at least 1897 but I'm having problems finding the origin.

I see various discussions on Yahoo, Word Origins but so far nothing authorative.

Here are the OED’s citations for such reprimands, which date from the late 19th century:

“Don’t call your mamma ‘she.’ ‘She’ is a cat” (from The Beth Book, by Frances Macfall, writing as Sarah Grand, 1897).

“ ‘Who’s She?’ demanded Nurse. ‘She’s the cat’s mother’ ” (from Compton Mackenzie’s novel Sinister Street, 1913).
grammarphobia.com

EDIT.
One 100% unsubstantiated theory I read was she was short for she-cat, so particularly unsuitable for referring to female elders within earshot, but who knows if this has any truth!

And where did the cat come from? Well, a male cat is a tom; a female cat is a she, or more often, a she-cat. So, 'she' is for cats. (And Not Your Mother!)
everything2.com

6

I think the following extract from Wordwizard gives a good suggestion on the popular origin of the expression. The origin appears to be from the second part of the 19th century as suggested here:

  • Eric Partridge in his ‘A Dictionary of Catch Phrases’ (1977) and in his later ‘Shorter Dictionary of Catch Phrases’ (1994) compiled by Fergusson from the work of Partridge & Beale, makes no mention of Green’s newer definition. They say that “ ‘She’ is the cat’s mother (or grandmother)” dates from the mid-19th century or earlier and is “one of two or three best-known of the domestic catch phrases” – that says it’s pretty damn popular – which is usually addressed to a child by a parent who refers to his or her (or any other [[adult]] female) as ‘she.’ But “by 1960 slightly obsolete.” The variant “Who’s ‘she’ – the cat’s mother (or grandmother)?” dates from the late 19th century.

It probably come from common saying used to reprimand children whenever they addressed adult people in a disrespectful way:

  • Of course Well, my mother used to tell me every time I used to say ‘hey’ in her presence, that ‘Hey is for horses.’ In the same spirit, what could a parent (or other) say to a child when they didn’t like them referring to an adult as ‘she,’ particularly when that adult was herself. So, they had to come up with something that said ‘she’ is/means blah, blah, blah. Imagining that the child WAS referring to his own mother as ‘she,’ it is not hard to visualize that the mother, in disgust, might come up with something like ‘she’ is the mother of some lower creature. And what better lower creature, than one the child would be most familiar with such as a house dog or cat (e.g. rat, mouse, or possibly horse, cow, pig, goat might have been close – but no cigar!)? So, by executive decision of mothers of old, cat it was!
  • The thing puzzling me is its first usage - perhaps a book, a play , a song or some such thing ? Since it was “one of two or three best-known of the domestic catch phrases” in mid-1800 - as mentioned in your reference - it seems weird that its roots hard to find. – k1eran Jul 28 '17 at 17:18
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    @k1eran: Written works can be consulted in the future. What humans said day to day is not written down, so we can't really point towards common usage unless there's still someone alive who can vouch for its usage (and even then they could be misremembering). There should be plenty of sayings that originated in casual conversation, as opposed to referencing a well known work (consider that language has existed for a long time before the common people were literate) – Flater Jul 29 '17 at 11:19
  • @Flater - Yes, I think you are right - I see now it's unlikely we'll track the origin down precisely. I think the answers by JEL and Josh certainly point me towards a better understanding of the likely source and a better understanding of how widespread it was in latter half of the 1800s. – k1eran Jul 31 '17 at 21:19
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Not the first use, but rather the first use I can find in print of "cat's mother" is this from a play produced at the Globe Theatre in 1870:

cat's mother1 1870
cat's mother2 1870

The white cat! or, Prince Lardi-Dardi & the radiant Rosetta, Burnand, F. C. (Francis Cowley), produced at the Globe Theatre, 1870.

Later evidence strongly suggests the origin is a folk phrase commonly (but not always; see the note from "A. J. M.") used as an reproof or correction for children. For example, this excerpt from Notes & Queries of May 25, 1878 (source of the first OED attestation of the phrase):

cat's mother1 1878
cat's mother2 1878

Bede's note provoked a series of responses in Notes & Queries. Among the responses were these:

cat's mother3 1878

Notes & Queries of June 25, 1878.

cat's mother4 1878
cat's mother5 1878
cat's mother6 1878

Notes & Queries of July 27, 1878

cat's mother7 1878

Notes & Queries of Sept. 21, 1878

cat's mother8 1879

Notes & Queries of Nov. 15, 1879

Searches for "cat's aunt", "cat's grandmother" and "cat's father" were not especially productive, although a finding of "cat's aunt" in the 1877 A glossary of words used in the wapentakes of Manley and Corringham, Lincolnshire (Peacock, Edward; as mentioned in the foregoing series of responses from Notes & Queries of July 27, 1878) did serve to reinforce that the use of the phrase, and its variants, was widespread in England in the mid-1800s:

Cat's Aunt. When a person talking of another says 'she' without having mentioned her name, his hearer usually says, by way of reproof, 'She's the cat's aunt;' i.e. the word she might have that significance. Common in London.

Similarly, another publication for the English Dialect Society, the 1894 Folk Phrases of Four Counties (Glouc., Staff., Warw., Worc.) sourced this to Warwickshire:

Her's the cat's mother. Warw. Said to one who uses the possessive her of the third person instead of the nominative she.

So, the grammatical complaint registered by the "cat's mother" phrase extended beyond the bald she to the use of her in place of she.

  • Thank you for the detailed digging & your thorough and interesting answer. I do really enjoy this phrase; I guess it similarly "resonated" with many others in the 1800s in Britain hence its the widespread adoption - perhaps the slight ambiguity and vagueness even added to its charm. – k1eran Jul 31 '17 at 21:06
  • Also, the babel.hathitrust.org site looks amazing - this was first time I've encountered it. Thanks for that too. – k1eran Jul 31 '17 at 21:07

protected by NVZ Jun 29 at 10:39

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