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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.”


An odd little word, or two.

Dear WD: With all this cloning business going on, I have a question. Where does the word “clone” come from? — Zoodc.

Before we start, I’d like to take a moment to encourage readers who write me via the Internet to sign their complete names to their questions, rather than their “screen names” or e-mail addresses. I like to conjure up a mental image of my readers as I write my answer, and it’s a bit difficult to picture a “zoodc.” Right now, I’m imagining someone writing to me from within the Washington, D.C., zoo, which is a bit disturbing, given the subject matter.

Well, with all this cloning business going on, I, too, have a lot of questions, some of which I probably shouldn’t ask. I understand that scientists, having cloned a sheep, have now moved on to cloning monkeys. I could ask why they skipped lawyers, but I won’t. I do, however, believe that I have discerned a pattern in these dubious endeavors, a method to the madness, which I will now share with you. Think for a moment. What do you get when you cross a sheep with a monkey? That’s right — a TV news anchorperson! They are breeding Rathers and Brokaws and Jenningses in those labs, and they must be stopped.

Meanwhile, back at your question, “clone” is an odd little word, but its origin is actually very straightforward and logical. It comes from the Greek word “klon,” meaning “twig,” and the first use of the word was in the field of botany in the early 20th century, to describe the process of growing one plant from a cutting or graft from another. Although “clone” soon came to be applied to microorganisms as well as plants, the first use of “clone” to mean an entire person or animal produced from a single parent was fairly recent, dating to 1970. One of the first figurative, non-scientific uses of “clone” was in 1979 to describe Elvis impersonators. Soon, I suppose, we’ll be reckoning with the real thing.

Between a rock and a hard place


Dear WD: I’m hoping you can answer this one for me. A friend and I were discussing the meaning of the term “Between a rock and a hard place,” and he said that he had heard that the phrase was originally “Between a rock and a hard plate.” He said that the “plate” was a steel plate attached to the bow of sailing ships to prevent damage in case the ship hit a rock. Thus the worst place to find oneself would be between the rock and this plate. Is my friend correct? — M. M., New York, NY.

Your friend certainly has come up with an interesting theory, although I don’t think I’d choose him for a sailing companion. “In case the ship hit a rock” is a bit too cavalier an approach to nautical safety for my taste.

I’m not an expert on the history of sailing, but I have never heard of such plates, though I could be wrong. It seems to me that the idea presumes that the ship would hit the rocks bow-first, which is hardly inevitable. In any case, the phrase “Between a rock and a hard place,” meaning to be in a difficult position or to be faced with a choice between two evils, does not come from any such contraption.

The phrase is nautical in origin, however, so your friend was on the right track. “Between a rock and a hard place” is a modern, non-literary variation on the much older “Between Scylla and Charybdis.” Homer, in “The Odyssey” (written about 850 B.C.), describes a perilously narrow sea passage his hero must navigate between Scylla, a terrifying monster, and Charybdis, a massive whirlpool. From Homer’s time up until fairly recently, “Between Scylla and Charybdis” was a common metaphor for a perilous or difficult situation. With classical studies somewhat in eclipse these days (putting it mildly), the less demanding “Between a rock and a hard place” is far more commonly heard.