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shameless pleading

Not enough room to swing a cat

Here Kitty, Kitty.

Dear WD: When my parents recently came to visit me in my somewhat cramped New York City apartment, I overheard my father say that there was “”. I’ll admit that technically he may have been right, but it seems like a rather brutal metaphor. Where did it come from? — B. Smith, NY, NY

Y’know, I’m getting a little tired of out-of-towners expressing shock at the size of the average New York City apartment. We happen to like them this way, thank you very much. There are definite advantages to having everything you own in one tiny, dark room. You never have to stand up to get something out of the refrigerator, for one thing, and many apartments actually have bathtubs in the kitchen, which is very convenient if your dinner guests are about to arrive and you’re still cooking. If you lived in New York City, that last point would make perfect sense to you. Scary, isn’t it?

There are two theories about “not enough room to swing a cat,” neither of them very cheerful. One is that the phrase refers to the “cat o’nine tails,” a nine-thonged whip used in the days of square-rigged ships to discipline unruly sailors. This “cat” got its name from the fact that the welts it left on a sailor’s back looked like enormous cat scratches. Most such whippings took place on the open deck, both as an example to the rest of the crew and because in the cramped quarters belowdecks there was “not enough room to swing a cat.”

The other, less cat-friendly theory is that the phrase refers to literally swinging a cat around by its tail. This version seems to have quite a bit more evidence in its favor, the phrase having come into use in the mid-17th century and being used with clear reference to actual cats ever since, including in Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield.”

1 comment to Not enough room to swing a cat

  • John Begg

    I’ve heard that a cat was a small sailing ship, and “swinging” meant rotating the ship and taking sights with the compass on an object such as a church steeple, so as to get a compass deviation table. In a crowded harbour there would not be room to swing a cat.

    However, the cat o’nine tails theory sounds equally, or even more, likely!

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