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Cats and Bags

By: Robin Pyatt Bellamy, Mountaineer News Contributor Posted: March 11, 2020 | 11:11AM EST

When I published my first piece on Mountaineer News, I announced it on Facebook by saying “the cat’s out of the bag.” Don’t call PETA. I do have two cats, and they like hanging out in bags, but I just wanted to let friends know of what new project I had been keeping under my hat. There’s another one. I wasn’t wearing a hat, and even if I was the only thing under it would be my head. These phrases have been repeated for centuries. Where did they come from? There are several theories.

Let’s start with the cat. The first documented case of the phrase was a book review in a 1760 issue of The London Magazine. The reviewer was disappointed that the author had revealed a secret. He said, "\We could have wished that the author had not let the cat out of the bag."

Because this is the first documented use, it’s hard to say where that reviewer heard it. Chances are it was a family phrase-kind of like “up the road a piece”. Some believe that the initial use of the phrase refers to the cat o’ nine tails. This was a weapon of the Royal Navy and was used for punishment aboard ship. It was a with nine knotted cords that would scratch a sailor’s back badly, like a cat. The cat ‘o nine tails was made of leather, and had to be kept from drying out in the salty sea air and becoming stiff and brittle. So, they kept it in a bag. In that way, the phrase would probably mean a revelation that results in a punishment. To that end, the cat would have to come out of its bag.

Snopes offers a different slant. An article from 2010, David Mikkleson suggests that the most widely believed theory about the origin is that the dastardly practice of some in the marketplace. Shady sellers of pigs would swap a cat for a pig that had been purchased and bagged for easier transport. The purchaser would only discover this when he returned home and opened the bag, thus letting the cat out. It’s likely the practice of bagging the purchased pig is also the origin of “pig in a poke.”. That is from 1555 and the advice to check your purchase of said pig in the “poke”, which means bag or sack. Versions of this phrase meant to caution the buyer come from all over the world. In Malta folks are warned not to “buy a fish in the sea”. In Spain the phrase translates as “to give a cat instead of a hare”. Give it in a sack, of course.

Pig purchasers would realize that pigs don’t have claws. In general, the pig would also be bigger and weigh more than the cat. Shoppers would know that. It does seem to relate to surprises and cats in modern times. Heaven knows cats can give people quite a start. Mine love to hide in reusable grocery bags and swat an ankle as it passes by.

Robin Pyatt Bellamy was born in Point Pleasant, WV in 1961 and grew up in Ravenswood. She is a professional paranormal researcher, family history researcher, and author. Currently living in Toronto, Canada she is the mother of three adult children, grandma to two littles, and a modern day “southern belle”.

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