Famous Sayings: #80 — ‘Let the Cat out of the Bag’

September 23, 2017

Who let the cat out of the bag?

let the cat out of the bag, theories, famous sayings, cat
You let the cat out of the bag. Image by Marco Varisco via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

This post is a little late, too (based on the ongoing problems with my computer), but here it is. This was still a fun phrase to look up, based on the readily available information.

That aside, let’s get into the meaning.


What Does ‘Let the Cat out of the Bag’ Mean?

FYI: This post was originally entitled “The Cat’s out of the Bag,” but while doing the research, I came across the older variation. But the basically mean the same thing.

Of course, when someone says they or someone else “let the cat out of the bag,” there are talking about a revelation. A secret has been divulged and it might be an explosive one.


How Did This Phrase Originate?

In a fun yet enlightening piece, Matt talked about the origin of the phrase “Let the cat out of the bag.” At the top of the page, Soniak mentioned that the first documented instance of the phrase could be found in a 1790 issue of The London Magazine.

We could have wished that the author had not let the cat out of the bag.

Soniak could not find another instance of the phrase earlier than that one, but he mentioned two theories about the origin before thoroughly debunking them.

Theory 1

The first theory involves the use of a whip kept by captains of the British Royal Navy to punish shipmates. The leather whip, which left indelible marks on the punished, was called the “cat o’ nine tails.” The theory stated that since the whip had to be kept in a bag to keep it from losing its moisture, the cat had to be let out of the bag before each use.

The “cat o’ nine tails” was a whip with nine knotted cotton cords. It was used by the British Royal Navy for floggings and kept in a red cloth bag. Another nickname for the whip was “the captain’s daughter.”

At Today, I Found Out, Matt Blitz wrote:

When a sailor didn’t perform their duty or when their behavior got out of a line, the captain would order that that they be trotted out in front of the entire ship and beaten with the whip. The boatswain’s mate, the one in charge of directing and supervising the crew, would be the one who was to do the flogging. As USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, Massachusetts delicately states, “he would take the cat out of the bag in front of the assembled crew and there would be no secret about what would happen next.”

Debunking This Theory

However, this theory could be disproved based on two principles:

First, the phrase “let the cat out of the bag” pertains to the act of revealing of a secret. In answering a question from one of his readers, Michael Quinion said it was unlikely that the removal of the cat o’ nine tails from its canvas bag gave rise to the saying namely because the act of flogging was a public act meant to deter others.

Second, there has been no historical connection made between the cat o’ nine tails and the idiom. The earliest reference to the whip’s nickname can be found in William Congreve’s 1695 play Love for Love.

The following lines can be found on pages 37-38 of the play Love for Love, spoken by Ben to Miss:

Look you, Young Woman, you may learn to give good Words however. I spoke you fair, d’ye see, and civil.

As for your Love or your Liking, I don’t value it of a Rope’s end;

And may-hap I like you as little as you do me:

What I said was in obedience to Father; Gad, I fear a whipping no more than you do. But I tell you one thing, if you should give such Language at Sea, you’d have a Cat o’ Nine-tails laid cross your Shoulders. Flesh! Who are you? You heard t’other handsome  Young Woman speak civilly to me, of her own accord: Whatever you think of you self, Gad I don’t think you are any more to compare to her, than a Can of Small-eer to a Bowl of Punch.

Theory 2

The other theory is that the phrase arose because of dishonest merchants. During the Middle Ages, there were open-air markets where produce and livestock (including piglets) were sold would be placed in bags for transport (McMahon).

According to the theory, the merchants would place piglets in bags then switch the pigs with cats when their customers weren’t looking. Whenever a cheated customer got home they would “let the cat out of the bag” and thus find out they had been swindled.

This theory is easily debunked when considers the differences between the two animals. In short, it would be hard for many (if any customers), even during the Middle Ages, to be fooled by the old switcheroo when cats and pigs weigh, sound, and behave differently (Mikkelson). In particular, a piglet is much heavier than a cat and the animals make different noises (“oink” and “meow”). As Soniak joked, “I have a cat fat enough to have earned the name “Oink,” and even he looks svelte next to a suckling pig.”

Blitz shot down the second origin theory based on the nature and implication of the idiom. When the cat is let out of the bag, one cannot put it back in.


Did You About a Few Terms That Related to ‘Let the Cat out of the Bag’?

While looking at the various sources that tackled this idiom, I came across some related terms. Some support the origin theory of “let the cat out of the bag.”

A ‘Pig in a Poke’

Soniak also points out that in 1530 Richard Hill’s Common-place Book was published. The advice offered in the book is connected to another idiom: “When ye proffer the pigge open the poke” (“When a pig is offered, open the poke”).* According to an entry at Snopes, that saying dates all the way back to 1325.

As Matt Blitz points out, this was a piece of advice to buyers to check the bag before leaving the market. In support of the first origin theory, it only works if there were buyers who faithfully listened to “unscrupulous sellers” (who switched the piglets with feral cats) and waited to get home before opening their bags. However, Blitz conceded it would be highly unlikely for someone to be fooled like that because of the noises cats would make, along with their clawing.

* Note: A poke was a bag or a sack.

A Spanish Equivalent

There is also a Spanish equivalent of “let the cat out of the bag,” dar gato por liebre (“giving a cat instead of a hare”).* That makes more sense since cats and rabbits are generally the same size and weight. However, when rabbits are sold, they are normally slaughtered and skinned.

* As Blitz said, “Hares were commonly eaten during the 14th and 15th centuries.”

Dutch and German Versions

Gary Martin said that the first origin theory was the more plausible one, although he couldn’t find a link between the saying and the selling of livestock. However, there are two versions of the idiom in Dutch (“Een kat in de zak kopen”) and German (“DieKatze im Sack kaufen”), which roughly translate to “to buy a cat in a bag,” which means to buy false goods.


Works Cited

Blitz, Matt. “Where Did the Expression ‘Let the Cat out of the Bag Come From?” Today, I Found Out. Web. 31 Jan 2014. Web. Retrieved 22 Sept 2017. <http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/01/expression-let-cat-bag-come/>.

Congreve, William. Love for Love. A Comedy: Acted at the Theatre in Little-Lincoln-Inn-Fields, y His Majesty’s Servants. The Fourth Edition. 1704 (originally written in 1695). Play. Pages 37-38.

Martin, Gary. “Let the cat out of the bag.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 22 Sept 2017. <https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/let-the-cat-out-of-the-bag.html>.

McMahon, Mary. “What are the Origins of the Phrase “Let the Cat out of the Bag”?” wiseGEEK. Last Modified on 15 Sept 2017 (by Harris, Bronwyn). Web. Retrieved 22 Sept 2017. <http://www.wisegeek.org/what-are-the-origins-of-the-phrase-let-the-cat-out-of-the-bag.htm>.

Mikkelson, David. “Etymology of ‘Letting the Cat Out of the Bag.’” Snopes. 16 July 2012. Web. Retrieved 22 Sept 2017. <http://www.snopes.com/language/phrases/catbag.asp>.

Quinion, Michael. “Let the cat out of the bag.” World Wide Words. Web. Retrieved 22 Sept 2017. <http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-let1.htm>.

Soniak, Matt. “What’s the Origin of ‘Let the Cat out of the Bag’?” Mental Floss. 12 July 2012. Web. Retrieved 22 Sept 2017. <http://mentalfloss.com/article/31180/whats-origin-let-cat-out-bag>.

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6 thoughts on “Famous Sayings: #80 — ‘Let the Cat out of the Bag’

  1. Fascinating as always. I think I prefer the giving away of a secret theory best. That’s the one I heard many times when I was young. Being a talker, I may have let a few cats out to my sisters after hearing something my mother had said. She often warned me about doing this in haste, as it wasn’t my cat tale to tell.

    I wonder now if this phrase/saying/whatever might have been used this way because a cat may like being in a box, but totally not having any being in a bag, and would most likely claw its way out, not to mention the sound made in route. Telling a secret can also be scratchy can’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t help thinking that this idiom now applies to Trump goes after the NFL and NBA. He let the “cat out of the bag” very clearly about his negative feelings about the African race.

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    1. Trump’s views on race have been pretty apparent for years. In the 1970’s he and his father were sued for housing discrimination. He took the birther BS and ran with it. His own campaign began with him making incendiary comment against Mexicans. And, of course, that’s not all.

      With comments like those he made in Alabama (which was full of dogwhistles), Trump is definitely appealing to his white supremacist base. His comments after the violence in Charlottesville, VA were more telling, though.

      In short, Trump’s racism and bigotry were no secret. Anyone who says differently is lying (at least to themselves).

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  3. I hadn’t heard of these two origin stories before, and I like them both. Without doing any research, my first guess was that it had to do with the unsavory practice of putting an unwanted cat in a burlap bag and then tossing it into the river to get rid of the cat. If someone at the last minute instead opens the bag and lets the cat free, then he or she has saved the cat from a grisly drowning. So, letting the cat out of the bag revealed a secret or distasteful act, but the outcome was a good thing. Now that I have typed this comment and re-read it, my possible explanation for the origin of the idiom does not fit well. At least it’s a happy ending.

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