Oh, my offline friend. I don’t know what is do without Serica my cat. She’s an endless source of comedy, frustration, and love. I love to watch her prowl around outside as if she’s a lion looking for a next meal. She usually just ends up sprawled out on the deck, soaking up the sun with occasional trips inside to drink some water and cool off in the AC. It got me wondering where the word cat came from, and I was surprised at what I found.

cat (n.)

Old English catt (c. 700) “domestic cat,” from West Germanic (c. 400-450), from Proto-Germanic *kattuz (source also of Old Frisian katte, Old Norse köttr, Dutch kat, Old High German kazza, German Katze), from Late Latin cattus.

The near-universal European word now, it appeared in Europe as Latin catta(Martial, c. 75 C.E.), Byzantine Greek katta (c. 350) and was in general use on the continent by c. 700, replacing Latin feles. Probably ultimately Afro-Asiatic (compare Nubian kadis, Berber kadiska, both meaning “cat”). Arabic qitt”tomcat” may be from the same source. Cats were domestic in Egypt from c. 2000 B.C.E., but not a familiar household animal to classical Greeks and Romans. The nine lives have been proverbial at least since 1560s.

The Late Latin word also is the source of Old Irish and Gaelic cat, Welsh kath, Breton kaz, Italian gatto, Spanish gato, French chat (12c.). Independent, but ultimately from the same source are words in the Slavic group: Old Church Slavonic kotuka, kotel’a, Bulgarian kotka, Russian koška, Polish kot, along with Lithuanian katė and non-Indo-European Finnish katti, which is from Lithuanian.

Extended to lions, tigers, etc. c. 1600. As a term of contempt for a woman, from early 13c. Slang sense of “prostitute” is from at least c. 1400. Slang sense of “fellow, guy,” is from 1920, originally in African-American vernacular; narrower sense of “jazz enthusiast” is recorded from 1931.

Cat’s paw (1769, but cat’s foot in the same sense, 1590s) refers to the old folk tale in which the monkey tricks the cat into pawing chestnuts from a fire; the monkey gets the roasted nuts, the cat gets a burnt paw. Cat burglar is from 1907, so called for stealth. Cat-witted “small-minded, obstinate, and spiteful” (1670s) deserved to survive. For Cat’s meow, cat’s pajamas, see bee’s knees. For let the cat out of the bag, see bag (n.).

A stranger in a strange land...

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