cat got your tongue?

“Cat got your tongue?” is a question addressed to someone who is inexplicably silent.

The phrase was in common use until the mid-1900s, and I certainly remember hearing it as a child. But perhaps I heard it because I was a child, since it was often asked of children who were being suspiciously quiet. Both questions and reprimands for children often use light-hearted imagery involving animals.

But the phrase was also sometimes directed at adults when they were expected to speak, perhaps to answer a previously posed question. This reminds me of early days on the farm, when my mother would ask my father if he’d like another cup of tea. Sometimes he was so involved with his own thoughts that it would take ten minutes for the question to penetrate and for him to say, “please” and offer his cup. She never asked if the cat had his tongue, however, probably because she’d learned that he wouldn’t hear that either.

The phrase is first found in print in 1881, in the US illustrated paper Ballou’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 53. To “hold one’s tongue,” meaning to shut up, dates back to Old English (circa 897 CE).

Several theories have been offered as to its source. The most interesting one comes from the Middle Ages, when people believed in witches and warlocks. The story goes that if you encountered a witch, her black cat (often a symbol of witchcraft and evil) would steal your tongue, thus rendering you speechless and unable to tell anyone what you saw. Another theory is that the “cat” refers to the cat-o’-nine-tails, a vicious whip used to punish early sailors “which would render the victim speechless.” 

Speechless? I would have thought the sailors would be howling, or at least yowling.

A third theory is the suggestion that ancient kings cut off the tongues of liars and fed the tongues to their cats.

Yet a fourth theory offered for the notion of a cat rendering a child speechless comes from an ancient belief that a cat can suck the breath from a sleeping child.

That theory is false, but since cats are liable to grab anything moving, either to eat or play with, perhaps there does exist, somewhere, the tale of one pouncing on a protruding tongue. Hopefully with claws not extended.

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