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shameless pleading

Kitty

I see your tabby and raise you two Siamese and a ginger tom.

Dear Word Detective: You mentioned a while back that you often watch Family Feud reruns. I was watching an older episode yesterday and the host, John O’Hurley, referred to the money at stake (it was some sort of special tournament episode) as “the kitty.” For some reason that struck me as strange and I began to wonder what a pot of money has to do with a cat, assuming that it does. Does it? — Bob Harris.

Yes, it’s true. We pay for satellite TV out here in the boonies, and ninety percent of what we watch is reruns of one lame game show. What can I say? Our internet is too slow for streaming movies, and everything else on TV seems to be serial-killer zombie meth dealers or supermodel super-cops. Or the Kardashians. So Family Feud is a nice diversion, provided you stick with the John O’Hurley-era show, which is often intelligent and funny. Mister O’Hurley also spends a lot of his free time campaigning for homeless dogs, which puts him on the top rung in my book.

Before we proceed, I should probably note that the “kitty” you’re asking about is not related to “kitty” as a term for a cat. That “kitty” is simply a familiar form of “kitten,” meaning a young cat, which comes from the Old French “chitoun.” While we’re at it, “Kitty” used as a nickname for a woman (e.g., Kitty Carlisle, of stage, screen and game-show fame) has nothing to do with cats; it’s a “pet” (affectionate) form of “Katherine” (as are Kate, Katy, etc.). This “kitty” was also used as a generic term for any young woman after it first appeared in the 16th century, particularly a young woman of “loose morals.”

“Kitty” in the sense of “pot of money at stake in a game” first appeared in the late 19th century. The initial meaning of this “kitty” was somewhat different, however. The original “kitty” was a sum of money, to which every player contributed, which was used to pay rent on the room and buy snacks, drinks, etc., for the assembled players. The more proper term for the bets at stake in the game was “pot,” which first appeared in the early 19th century, and probably came from the container (whether actual or metaphorical) used to hold the money during the game. “Kitty” is now used to mean both this sort of gambling prize “pot” and any collection of funds used for a common purpose, as in contributions amassed to buy holiday decorations for an office.

Meanwhile, back at the “nothing to do with a cat” end of the question, the origin of this “kitty” has been disputed for years. One theory traces “kitty” to “kidcote,” an antiquated English term for a jail, probably originally a jocular reference to a cage or shelter (“cote” being related to “cottage”) for a young goat (kid). And “kitty” was indeed used in England as slang for “jail” in the 19th century. But no connection of the “kitty” as “jail” to the “kitty” of money has ever been documented.

It’s far more likely that “kitty” in the money sense is derived from “kit” meaning “a collection of items.” This “kit” (from the Dutch “kitte”) originally meant a vessel or tub made of hooped staves, like a milk pail or a tub used to carry produce, butter, fish, etc. This sense was soon extended to mean a carrying case, bag or box of any kind. The standardized contents of the “kit bags” carried by soldiers became known as “articles of kit” or, eventually, the soldier’s “kit.” This “collection of items for a specific purpose” sense eventually led us to the DIY torment of Ikea furniture kits.

In any case, it seems plausible that if a “kit” is a collection of things designed to attain a goal, “kitty” would be a good term for a small collection of money collected for a party or similar occasion. And once “kitty” was familiar as meaning “a collection of money,” it made sense for folks to use it to mean the “pot” to be won in a gambling game.

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