"What's wrong? Has the cat got your tongue?"
Chances are, you've heard this expression when you've been stumped for something to say. It's usually when the speaker has the upper hand in the conversation and you are at a loss for words.
Have you ever wondered where the phrase came from? It evokes a fairly grisly mental image of a cat clamping down on your tongue. Yeow! So what's the deal?
Roots in the Middle Ages
According to Oxford Journals, the earliest entry for the expression is in the Oxford English Dictionary of 1911. However, it's estimated that the origin dates back to the Middle Ages. One legend has it that witches' cats would "steal" a person's speech so that the sighting could not be reported to the authorities.
Can Felines Steal Your Breath?
The phrase may also be related to the myth that cats steal babies' breath. This one may also date back to the Middle Ages when people believed cats, drawn to the smell of milk on small infants, would cuddle close and smother them in an effort to get their hands on some of that prized liquid. Yeesh! Of course, today we know that this is just a silly myth.
Of course, if you do have an infant in the house, it's probably best to close the nursery door during nap time. Babies can't move their heads or bodies very well. Your cat may think she's simply cuddling with a new friend, but could, in reality, be obstructing your child's airway.
In fact, it may be all this myth and metaphor that's the real underlying meaning behind the phrase "Cat got your tongue?" Since the beginning of our relationship with cats thousands of years ago, they've been a source of mystery.
Felines, being the mysterious creatures they are, account for a lot of myths, legends, and popular idioms. For instance, black cats bring bad luck, and all cats have nine lives. They even rain down from the sky along with dogs! For as long as we've lived side by side with majestic felines, we have never really come to understand their fickle ways and motivations. Instead we've associated them with mysterious and inexplicable occurrences.
Maybe the phrase really means, "What's got your tongue?" After all, it's not the cat!