In CNN's January 8, 2023 video Retired general calls new armored vehicles US is sending Ukraine 'significant' after about 04:40 US Retired Major General (and analyst for CNN) James "Spider" Marks says (per YouTube's transcript):

The Ukrainians have acknowledged they're going to end up with a hodgepodge, kind of a cat's breakfast of all these different type of capabilities.

Marks later references Debbie Downer, a recent late-night television recurring character, but the only reference I can find to "cat's breakfast" is a ca. 440 year old painting:

A woman of humble origin shares her meal with a cat. In the 17th century it was not unusual to consume herring with bread (and beer!) for breakfast. Due to ageing, the yellow pigment in the stems of the flowers in the vase has disappeared, turning the original green colour blue.

I get the idea put forth in the block quote that a breakfast that might be perfectly normal in one place and time might be considered an odd juxtaposition of foods at another place and time, and Marks may be referring to this notion by relating "hodgepodge" to "cat's breakfast".

But now I'm curious how well-established this expression is, and when it first took hold (assuming it has).

Question: When did the expression "cat's breakfast" come in to usage as an example of a hodgepodge collection, assuming it ever did?

  • 4
    You might have better luck looking for dog's breakfast. Same meaning, but I think more common.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 4:43
  • 2
    Or dog's dinner. Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 8:22
  • 1
    Marks later references Debbie Downer, a recent late-night television recurring character, but the only reference I can find to "cat's breakfast" is a ca. 440 year old painting: This is obviously literal and has no relation to the figurative use. I rather think that "cat's breakfast" is simply a mistake. If it helps, I've never heard or read it.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 10:22
  • 1
    What Robusto & Kate said. Here's the chart showing that dog's breakfast / dinner are about equally common, but neither of the cat versions occur very often. Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 13:49
  • @FumbleFingers Okay thanks. Perhaps in this context Marks felt using dog was less fitting or appropriate, and since "cat's breakfast" was out there as the title of a painting, he decided to have some fun. Under the video there's a comment "'Cat’s breakfast' Spyder? We can always count on you for colorful and sometimes forgotten metaphors, but I think you outdid yourself today."
    – uhoh
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 22:46

1 Answer 1


James Rodale, The Synonym Finder (1978) lists "looking like the cat's breakfast" as a synonym for "grubby":

grubby, adj. 1. dirty, unclean, unwashed, Sl. crummy, Sl. grungy, messy , Sl. looking like the cat's breakfast; filthy , foul , repulsive, wretched; sordid, squalid, ratty; slovenly, Sl. raunchy, Inf. scruffy, unkempt, untidy shabby, seedy; frowzt, dowdy, frumpish, slatternly.

Thus, for example, from an unidentified article in Potato Chipper (August 1950) [combined snippets]:

There's more to a good breakfast than the food. Let's think about you first. No, not you, because you never would come to the table with your face unwashed or your hair looking like a cat's breakfast or a great big tangle. It's the girl or boy next door who comes to the table like that.

Potato Chipper was a publication of the Potato Chip Institute International,a U.S.-based organization. The earliest examples I could find of "cat's breakfast" as a synonym for a (rather unappetizing) mishmash, hodgepodge, potpourri, or gallimaufry, however, are from the UK, Australia, Canada, and Ireland.

From remarks by the Earl of Selkirk on the Coast Protection Bill, January 27, 1949, in Parliamentary Debates of the House of Lords Official Report (1949) [combined snippets]:

Is it intended that this parallel jurisdiction should continue?—because if it is, it is quite a different principle. It may be necessary to have a different principle—I do not know. But I do suggest that there is a point in this, and I think that on Report stage we should insist that the matter should be cleared up to a greater extent than at present. I have great sympathy with those upon whom the task of dealing with this Bill has fallen. It is not an easy Bill, and it is no doubt an extremely difficult one to attach something to. If I may use a vulgar expression, it is "something of a cat's breakfast," and to attach something to it and to look into it is an extremely difficult thing. I sympathise with those who have to do it, but I think we are entitled to a fairly close statement of policy upon it.

From an unidentified item in Punch (1962) [combined snippets]:

PANORAMA (Extract)

Backcloth: A Map of Great Britain with a sinister dotted line running East and West.

MR. DIMBLEBY: And, Field-Marshal, as the first prominent person from this side to travel freely behind the Wall, what are your impressions?

FIELD-MARSHAL: To start with, President Pot is a first-class chap, first-class. Wouldn't mind having him with me in a wadi any day of the week, any day of the week. Mind you, they've a lot to learn. Northern Command always did have.

MR. DIMBLEBY: Ah! The Army, Field-Marshal?

FIELD-MARSHAL: Different kettle of fish there of course. Lot to learn as I said. Bit of a cat's breakfast, if you ask me!

From Eaven Boland, "Compact and Compromise: Derek Mahon as a Young Poet," in Irish University Review (Spring–Summer 1994) [combined snippets], recalling a conversation from 1964:

During the late summer of 1964, as the afternoons darkened, I worked on a poem called "On Sandymount Strand". I wrote it on lined foolscap in draft after draft. Then I typed it up. I showed it to Derek one Autumn night, with the lamps on the pavements of Nassau street shining with rain. He read it carefully then looked away happily. "It's a cat's breakfast," he said.

From a review of The Age: The Role of the Media in Media Information Australia (1978) [combined snippets]:

No details of sample, a progress report based on 150-odd questionnaires, but no data on their basis is given. What each medium means in Melbourne, attitudes to media, information and entertainment value, assessment of advertising, brand to buy. A six-point scale is used and presented in charts with graphs which are so much like a cat's breakfast that they merely anger and frustrate. Very general summaries help a little, but most of the content was wasted on this scribe and and others to whom he showed it. A pity; it seems to be similar to needs and gratifications.The rationale for the rankings (which iffer from case to case) is not explained. A mess.

And from remarks by Marcel Lambert of Edmonton West, in House of Commons Debates [Canadian Parliament] (1980) [combined snippets]:

As the hon. member for Winnipeg North Centre (Mr. Knowles) indicated, a number of points have been put forward by members with regard to representation and how we choose this House. They should go into the hopper now,not on the eve of the next election. It should not be as we did in 1974 after a redistribution. We saw a cat's breakfast served up by the redistribution commission in their wisdom. As my former colleague from Carleton said, never was there such gerrymandering, incompetence and ignorance as was exhibited by the reports generallt during that redistribution. That was incompetence and ignorance as far as political representation was concerned.

The earliest U.S. instance that I could find of "cat's breakfast" in the relevant sense is from Harvey Sicherman, "Force, Peace, and Democracy," in Anthony Joes, ed., Saving Democracies: U.S. Intervention in Threatened Democratic States (1999):

It is difficult to conclude, too, that after the Somalia disaster, U.S. action drew its primary motivation from the theme of democracy. There as no real democracy ti restore in Haiti, an the Bosnian multiethnic state was mostly a nostalgia for old Sarajevo. When push came to shove, the Clinton administration placed higher importance on the need to avoid casualties or a prolonged stay than the objective of creating democratic societies.

From this cat's breakfast there still emerged a rough formula for American military intervention: delay, delay; when pressed, enter fast and hard; do not try to change the balance on the ground too much; stay out of harm's way, if possible; hold an election or two; pour in money; recruit allies and friends to help hold the bag; and then, proclaim victory near the exit without looking back.

Boze Hadleigh, Holy Cow!: Doggerel, Catnaps, Scapegoats, Foxtrots, and Horse Feathers—Splendid Animal Words and Phrases (2015) reports that "cat's breakfast" and "dog's breakfast" are interchangeable terms:

"A dog's breakfast" (or dinner) is British slang for a mess. This seems more apt for a pig than a canine (which, after all, buries its bone), but was coined in a pre-canned-dog-food era when the meal of a dog or cat (“a cat's breakfast” means the same) was often leftover scraps tossed on the floor—by a human who didn't put them in a dish.

And Tom Dalzell & Terry Victor, The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2012) offers this entry for "cat's breakfast":

cat's breakfast noun an unpleasant mess UK, 1984 | a variation of DOG's BREAKFAST [defined in the same dictionary as an Australian term meaning "an unmitigated mess" and dating to 1934].

In any event, "dog's breakfast" appears to be a much more widely used term. A.P. Cowie, Ronald Mackin & I.R. McCaig, Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English (1983) has this entry for that expression:

a dog's breakfast/dinner {Comp (N[oun] P[hrase])} (informal) a mess; a situation, undertaking piece of work, room etc that is mismanaged, untidy etc [examples omitted]

Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms (1998) has this:

a dog's breakfast/dinner British % Australian, informal something that has been done very badly [examples omitted]

And John Ayto, Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, third edition (2009) has this:

a dog's dinner (or breakfast) a poor piece of work; a mess | British informal | The image is of a dog's meal of jumbled-up scraps.

It thus appears that, to the extent that "cat's breakfast" can mean "hodgepodge," the expression arose in connection with the actual mishmash of scraps that one might assemble and offer to a cat for breakfast. Nevertheless, the "mess" aspect of "cat's breakfast" appears to be the predominant sense of the expression as it (as well as the kindred "dog's breakfast") is used today.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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