For those of you who know me, I couldn’t resist investigating an idiom referring to cats. There are plenty of cat idioms out there; ‘cat’s pyjamas’, ‘cat’s whiskers’, ‘curiosity killed the cat’… But I thought ‘cat out of the bag’ was the most interesting and nonsensical of them all; so let’s find out what it means, and where it came from!
What does ‘cat out of the bag’ mean?
So first of all, when would you actually use the phrase ‘cat out of the bag’? It can be used in a couple of ways, such as ‘the cat’s out of the bag’, and ‘I/you/he/she let the cat out of the bag’; so what does it mean? Well, when someone lets the cat out of the bag, it means they have revealed a secret, often by mistake. So say a surprise party had been arranged for your friend on a Saturday, of which they had no knowledge, and you inadvertently said to them “I’ll see you at the party on Saturday then?”, you would have effectively let the cat out of the bag and revealed there was a party on Saturday!
The usage of ‘cat out of the bag’ is straightforward enough, but how did this odd arrangement of words become what it means today?
‘Cat out of the bag’ origins
It turns out that ‘cat out of the bag’ originated from England in the Middle Ages, or more specifically, the 1700s according to Peter Bengelsdorf in his book Idioms in the News – 1,000 Phrases, Real Examples. More precisely still, Gary Martin, writing for phrases.org.uk, claims that the first recorded use of ‘cat out of the bag’ was in The London Magazine in 1760, which printed: “”We could have wished that the author… had not let the cat out of the bag.”” So I think it’s safe to assume that this idiom originated from this time. The next question we need it ask is – was the original meaning more literal than it is now?
To find out, I start with an explanation from Max Cryer’s The Cat’s Out of the Bag: Truth and lies about cats. He poses that the phrase relates to cases of fraud at medieval markets – which in itself sounds fascinating! Apparently, housewives of the time would go to the local market to buy a live piglet for her family’s dinner. The market traders would often sell their livestock in paper bags, so the contents of the bag were actually hidden from the buyer. Seeing this as an opportunity to sell something less valuable than a piglet, dishonest market traders would instead place a cat in the bag, unbeknownst to the buyer. Suspicious housewives would (rightly so!) ask the trader to open the bag to verify the contents before they parted with their money, and should a cat jump out instead of a piglet, the trader’s fraud would have been uncovered… So the cat, and the secret, was literally out of the bag!
This interpretation seems to be widely accepted, with all sources in my research saying something along the same lines. That said, Martin does suggest another theory, but muses that it’s questionable. This secondary theory suggests that the “cat” in ‘cat out of the bag’ refers to a “cat o’ nine tails”, a whip that was used to punish sailors (so far, so gruesome). This “cat o’ nine tails” was said to be stored in a bag, hence the conclusion that it may have been the origin of ‘cat out of the bag’. This seems a very light correlation to me, and indeed, Martin implies that this theory is not a strong contender by any means, seeing as it doesn’t bear any relation to the “revealing a secret” meaning. I’m inclined to believe that the “market fraud” theory is the clear winner here.
So it seems that ‘cat out of the bag’ not only originated from a literal source, but also involved real cats! The story behind it is really fascinating, and not only explains the idiom as we know it today, but also gives us a little glimpse into what normal life was like at the time.
Idioms in the News – 1,000 Phrases, Real Examples – Peter Bengelsdorf – 2012
The Cat’s Out of the Bag: Truth and lies about cats – Max Cryer – 2015