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Here's what the idiom means -

To speak vaguely or euphemistically so as to avoid talking directly about an unpleasant or sensitive topic.

TheFreeDictionary

It seems to be the Czech equivalent of "beat around the bush". However, this isn't the definition of the original idiom. It seems that the Finnish and Norwegians brought cats into their version of the same idiom: “pace around hot porridge like a cat”...

The earliest instance of the altered idiom that I could find was from this periodical (Volume 20) published in 1900 -

Thus the cat walks around the hot porridge, for he cannot escape the conditions of the origin of the first protoplasmic cell which now, to him, is a mechanical affair resting upon the ordinary physico-chemical mechanics —

However, I couldn't find any instances of the original idiom "to walk around hot porridge".. Therefore, I would like to know the etymology of the original idiom.

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  • The examples you cite indicate that the cat isn't walking around in hot porridge, but around it—right? That is, the image is of a bowl of hot porridge that the cat is avoiding stepping in.
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 27, 2021 at 18:14
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    It appears as a German proverb in E Zimmerman, Familiar German Quotations and Proverbs (1878) as proverb # 543: "543. Wie die Katze um den heiszen Brei gehen. To go like a cat around the hot porridge. To beat about the bush." So the English version seems to have come from the German expression.
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 27, 2021 at 18:20
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    I’m voting to close this question because it's about the etymology of a metaphorical usage that comes from a different language, and has effectively no currency in English Feb 27, 2021 at 18:42
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    @FumbleFingers: I think the expression is somewhat anglicized at this point, although it remains uncommon. Consider this instance from an unidentified item in New Times (2001): "However, what [Bill] Clinton did in this field can be compared with the behaviour of a cat pacing around hot porridge. Ultimately, he left the job to his successor."
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 27, 2021 at 19:14
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    @FumbleFingers: Clearly your cat lives well and can afford to be finnicky. (Lucky cat!) I think of the gaunt dogs I saw during my vacation in Mexico that would lurk nearby as we ate our picnic lunches, hoping that we would toss them a bit of tortilla (which they would consume greedily). Presumably the cat-and-porridge expression arose in the days when cats survived in part on what they could catch around the house, and a bowl of unguarded porridge had considerable charm.
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 27, 2021 at 19:31

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One early occurrence of the expression involves its appearance as a German proverb in E. Zimmerman, Familiar German Quotations and Proverbs (1878) as proverb #543:

  1. Wie die Katze um den heiszen Brei gehen. To go like a cat around the hot porridge. To beat about the bush.

So the English version seems to have come from the German expression.

Other instances from the late nineteenth century drop the definite article from the expression. For example, from Grace Howard Peirce, "A Few Conjectures," in The Bostonian (February 1896):

The Germans have a phrase for the attitude of persons hesitating to commit themselves on a subject, that they go round and round it like a cat around hot porridge. They may intend an eventual coming to close quarters with what is under consideration but are disposed to make their primary investigations at a certain distance. Is not this the position adopted by most by most of us with regard to the latest literary dish offered for our delectation? The critics themselves, who discuss the symbolists, have very little to say about symbolism, dismissing it generally as an unimportant feature in the work of the new school of writers.

Another early variant alludes to a dog rather than to a cat. From Bouck White, The Book of Daniel Drew: A Glimpse of the Fisk-Gould-Tweed Régime from the Inside (1910):

Some time before the Erie's annual meeting I let it be known that, inasmuch as they had asked me to take a position as director, I might see my way clear to accept if I was elected. I put it kind of mild, like that. But I was just itching to get in on the inside. Like a dog around hot porridge, there was something good there, if I could only get to it. I could hardly wait. Finally the election took place, and they sent me word that I had been elected a member of the Board of Directors. I was at last on the inside.

This last example is useful because it emphasizes a key point in the sense of the expression: that the animal is eager to eat the porridge but is afraid to take a bite because the food is too hot (for the moment); so instead the cat or dog circles the tempting bowl and gauges when it may be safe to dig in.

The sense here is thus rather different from the sense of "beat around the bush," which is something like "avoid saying something directly for fear of giving offense. The difference is not in the avoidance but in the desirability of the metaphorical bowl of porridge versus the metaphorical bush. There may be something good in the bush that the person wants to flush out without jumping directly into the bush, but it isn't sitting there in plain sight the way the porridge is. Moreover, the critical element in walking around the hot porridge is having patience while it inevitably cools—the only danger being that the owner of the porridge will whisk it away before it becomes cool enough to eat—whereas the contents of the bush are by no means certain to come within reach t any point.

Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2012) has this entry for "beat around the bush":

beat around the bush. Also beat about the bush. Approach indirectly in a roundabout way, or too cautiously. For example, Stop beating around the bush—get to the point. This term, first recorded in 1572, originally may have alluded to beating the bushes for game.

In contrast to the too cautious bush beater, the cat or dog walking around the hot porridge is acting temperately and exercising appropriate caution. So there does seem to be a distinction in underlying sense between "going like a cat around the hot porridge" and "beating around the bush." The "cat around hot porridge" is not especially common in English (I had never herd of it before), but it does enjoy a modest level of use in English.

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    It's unclear which language first used the metaphor of a cat walking around porridge. English discussions of the phrase point to versions of the expression in Czech, Slovak, "Yugoslavian," German, Norwegian, and Finnish—and it may be that different languages assign different shades of meaning to their version of the expression. Simply because the pipeline of German to English is so large, I think it is the most likely immediate source of the English wording, but that is no proof that the expression arose in German before it did in one or more of the other languages noted in this comment.
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 27, 2021 at 19:41

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