In one of many online articles professing the origin of well-known and popular English sayings, I was particularly struck by the one related to "Cat got your tongue". The author writes
Origin: The English Navy used to use a whip made with multiple rope endings called a ‘cat’o’-nine-tails’. After whipping a victim, they’d joke “cat got your tongue?” Others believe the expression comes from the Ancient Egyptian method of cutting out the tongues of blasphemers and serving them to cats for dinner.
Despite the article being only posted earlier today (October 1, 2020), the story didn't ring true to my ears. In fact, a simple Google search revealed the following
Phrase Finder rejects the source, and adds
The expression [cat got your tongue] sounds as though it might be old but isn't especially so. I can find no instances of it in print until the mid 19th century, as in this example from the Wisconsin newspaper The Racine Democrat, December 1859 […]
The early examples of the expression in print all come from the USA, which reinforces the falsity of the Egyptian or Royal Navy origins.
The Science Museum Group website states that the 18th century weapon used to punish sailors is in fact the origin of the equally popular sayings, “Not enough room to swing a cat” and “Letting the cat out of the bag”; the latter referring to the bag in which the whip was kept.
Wikipedia claims the custom of treating cuts and lacerations with brine, caused by the flogging instrument, created the following phrase
After the flogging was completed, the sailor's lacerated back was frequently rinsed with brine or seawater, which was thought to serve as a crude antiseptic (although it is now known that seawater contains significant microbial components). Although the purpose was to control infection, it caused the sailor to endure additional pain, and gave rise to the expression "rubbing salt into his wounds"
World Wide Words' post argues that the saying “no room to swing a cat" was already familiar to the English well before the whipping instrument was first documented in literature.
It’s clear that even by 1665 the expression was idiomatic. This makes it very unlikely that it should derive from cat-o’nine-tails, since the first mention of that term for the punishment device is in William Congreve’s play Love for Love of 1695.
However, the following three sources: 1, 2 and 3 all attribute the origin of “cat got your tongue" with the infamous instrument of punishment. There is also an article that says the nine ‘tails’ represent the nine lives of a cat.
It seems clear that the cat-'o-nine-tails, which was made with nine log lines (the knots in the rope helped sailors to measure a ship's speed) is credited to have created numerous English phrases and expressions but not one of the reference actually confirms with certainty that it is the source of any of the phrases listed above.
- Is there an earlier instance than 1695 of cat-o'nine-tails?
- Which of the above expressions, or even a different one, can be safely attributed to the whip used by the Royal Navy?
What type of cat do you swing? EL&U
The Cat Out of The Bag EL&U
not enough room to swing a cat Wiktionary
History of the cat-o’-nine-tails word histories
Cat got your tongue? Phrase Finder
Cat got your tongue? Grammarphobia