I think this is a British idiom.

The American version would be, "The cat that killed the canary."

I was about to say this to a female friend, intended as a "well done" sort of compliment, specifically on something to do with her relationship, when my internal filter suddenly held back. Given there exist innuendo definitions of "cat" and "cream", and that she's American, not British, would the phrase have mis-communicated some innuendo?

  • 1
    Perhaps not to the extent of confusion to some Americans we were entertaining a few weeks ago, when they saw "Spotted Dick" on the restaurant's pudding menu! – WS2 Aug 10 at 7:01
  • 3
    It's my belief that the idiom is also known to Americans. I did not know about the canary version though. – Mari-Lou A Aug 10 at 7:27
  • 3
    no no innuendo at all, it is a simple simile. – WendyG Aug 10 at 8:18
  • 1
    Me neither @Mari-LouA. The canary version sounds rougher and tougher (US/UK ?!) to me: If cream is consumed it's no major loss to anyone, just a gain for the cat; if a canary is consumed the cat may be content but that's a life lost...? – Dan Aug 10 at 9:01
  • 1
    @Stewart please no. I'm just trolling you for fun. I don't think USans are more sniggery than UKans though which is your implication. Any red-blooded 13 year old son of a Buddhist monk could find innuendo in a bag of hammers... snicker – Mitch Aug 10 at 13:20

In my 51 years of being British, and 50 years of speaking British English, I can safely say I have never come across any innuendo associated with the phrase "The cat that got the cream".

My understanding of the phrase would be that if two or more cats were given a saucer of milk from the same bottle, the one that got the cream (that floats at the top of the bottle) would be smug, because the cream is richer and tastier than the milk that follows.

For additional info, I am part of a family that thrives on innuendo, so I would consider myself a reliable source on this subject. Now, if the phrase was "The pussy that got the cream", I might well snigger.

  • 1
    I think the OP refers to a possible innuendo to American ears, not British ears. – user240918 Aug 10 at 9:32
  • @user070221 Exactly. Knowing it's an established idiom defuses any snigger-potential. But if it's not known, and the context was specifically a relationship issue .... – Stewart Aug 10 at 9:33
  • 1
    Do Americans snigger at the word "cat"? – Phil M Jones Aug 10 at 9:34
  • @PhilMJones Good point. I've certainly had a Frenchman snigger at the word "chatte" when I used it innocently. Depending on the context, if it's re-doubled with "cream" ... I just wasn't sure – Stewart Aug 10 at 9:36
  • 1
    @Stewart To actually give my personal opinion about the matter, no I don't hear any innuendo (also, not 13 yo). 'cream' is a rarer word culturally in the US, you give cats milk usually. The phrase sounds like some distantly familiar Beatrix Potter/Aesop fable mish-mash to me. A lot depends on context of the person, so it could well be bad in the wrong audience but self-searching, I can't remember anything like that from the past.But innuendo is vague and others might feel differently – Mitch Aug 10 at 13:24

Collins Dictionary clearly states the difference between BrE and AmE usage,

like the cat that got the cream BRITISH

or like the cat that ate the canary AMERICAN:

If someone looks like the cat that got the cream, they look satisfied and happy with themselves because they have been successful or done something they are proud of. `Thanks a million,' he repeats, grinning like the cat that got the cream. Jules stands at one end, looking like the cat that ate the canary.

while M-W doesn’t cite any specific geographical usage.

Google Ngram shows a wider usage in BrE than in AmE of “the cat that got the cream”, so its reasonable to assume that the expression is also known in the U.S. where “the cat that ate the canary”, is, however, more commonly used.

The idiom carries no innuendo, but given that it appears that the “cream” version is not popular in the U.S., whether it may be misunderstood and innuendo inferred very much depends on the person involved.

As an American I'm not familiar with "the cat that got the cream," but if it merely means that the cat got a bonus through luck or effort (which is my understanding of the other answers), then it's not equivalent to "the cat that ate the canary": in that case, the cat, although doing something natural, has eaten another household pet and is, in the eyes of the owner, guilty. In many Looney Tunes cartoons, a cat named Sylvester tries to catch and eat Tweety Bird. They are both pets in the same house. "The cat that ate the canary" must be related to, or even stem from, these cartoons, I think.

Citations: Definition 1 in Wiktionary for "cat that ate the canary" is "A person who appears self-satisfied or smug, especially while concealing something mischievous, prohibited, or private." However, as one who has been speaking and listening to American English for about 63 years, and watching Looney Tunes for about the same amount of time :-), I'll say that the idiom as I have known it is closer to one quote in the entry for "Cat That Ate The Canary" on "Historically Speaking" from the November 16, 1952, Victoria Advocate (accompanying a photo of a cat with an empty birdcage): "No wonder this nameless cat won’t look you in the eye. He is guilty as only a cat can be. He just ate not only one, but five canaries." All about Looney Tunes: The Official Looney Tunes Site.

  • This doesn't answer the question "Is there (or could there be construed) innuendo in the cat that got the cream?". This is just a discussion on another part of the OP's post. – AndyT Aug 10 at 13:51
  • Also, we like researched and referenced answers anyway. And a quick look at the most likely reference (Merriam-Webster) agrees with the OP and disagrees with you. – AndyT Aug 10 at 13:59
  • I agree with the answer that there appears to be no innuendo in "the cat that got the cream" but not that it is equivalent to "the cat that ate the canary." So I limited my answer to that aspect. If it should be a comment rather than an answer, I will be happy to change it if that's possible. – Literalman Aug 13 at 17:00

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

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