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Is cat a slang word?

Cats Out of the Bag

PALEONTOLOGISTS in Florida recently announced the discovery of a new species of saber-toothed cat — the third such cat known to have lived in North America. The cat in question, unearthed from a sinkhole, is a million-year-old specimen that was built like a bear and was capable of reducing wild peccaries (among whose fossilized bones it was found) to Meow Mix quicker’n scat, as old-timers might put it. The new species does not yet have a name. Some might be disposed to regard it as a wampus cat, a hitherto fanciful member of the wildcat clan, to which campers attribute mysterious nocturnal growls and thuds. The inspiration for wampus cat seems to be catawampus, an old term for a remarkable or unruly individual, and, strange to say, originally an adverb similar in meaning to catty-(or kitty-or cater-) cornered.

Unlike their prehistoric cousins, the cats that prowl the savannas of slang are pretty well domesticated. The metaphor-minded may find it curious that slangy cat imagery has come into its own only during the past hundred years or so. «Suffering cats!» exclaims a character in Shakespeare in Love, anachronistically employing a twentieth-century interjectory phrase more usual in the form of Holy cats! or even Catfish! Seventeenth-century slangsters did refer to prostitutes as cats — hence cathouse, «a brothel.» Raining cats and dogs (originally dogs and polecats) dates from several decades later. This expression has prompted some far-fetched explanatory scenarios, including the idea that torrential rains used to send lots of dead animals floating down the gutters of London. No one really knows the expression’s origin.

The same holds true for cat itself; it may derive from an untrackable Indo-European word that wound up in post-classical Latin as cattus (which also referred to weasels and stoats). Cicero and Caesar, of course, used the better-established feles (or felis). Scat! has lexicographers more or less stumped. The cunning suggestion that it comes from a peremptory Ssss! Cat! has garnered fervent adherents but stands on little evidence.

As noted, Florida’s saber-toothed cat has been likened to a bear in build. As it happens, the word bearcat sprang to life as a popular name for neither a bear nor a cat but for the red panda. By 1910 it had become a slang reference to somebody energetic or fearsome or to something impressively appealing; hence the various high school and college teams around the country called the Bearcats. And don’t forget the Stutz Bearcat, the classic motorcar first built in 1911 by Harry Stutz’s Ideal Motor Car Company, of Indianapolis. Arguably America’s most highly prized sports car, the rakish Bearcat bore the incidental distinction of being one of the last American-built automobiles to mount the steering wheel on the right.

Specialists who try to reconstruct the unwritten predecessors of English (and related languages) report that the modern bear ultimately originated as a Germanic euphemism meaning simply «the brown one,» presumably on the speak-of-the-devil principle. As many people are aware, the teddy bear was named commercially in honor of a black bear that was spared by President Teddy Roosevelt on a disappointing hunting expedition in Mississippi in 1902. Teddy bear now also designates a gruff but soft-hearted, lovable, maybe even easily manipulated person, generally a man — in other words, a real pussycat.

In the early 1920s America’s youth decided that anything great or gratifying was the cat’s meow — or the cat’s pajamas or even the bee’s knees, phrases you can still hear on occasion. Cat meaning «a jazz man» or «any man» soon began to creep into jazz lingo — introduced, they say, by the trumpeter and New Orleans native Louis Armstrong. It was combined with hep (or hip) to produce hepcat in the 1930s. There are romantics who hope that hepcat will turn out to be derived from the word hipikat, in the West African language Wolof; hipikat means, roughly, «eyes open.» The likelihood that such a linguistic kinship exists, however, is vanishingly small.

J. E. Lighter is the editor of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Illustration by Craig Hopson.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 1999; Cats Out of the Bag — 99.06; Volume 283, No. 6; page 140.

Floofs and Boops! The Top 10 Cute Cat Words!

Photo of Karen Dell

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Are you fluent in floofin’ cat talk, hooman? All good purr-ents should know their floofs from their boops! Have a peek at our top 10 cute cat words and learn about the wonderful world of internet cat slang.

10. Smol

The word smol is used to decribe something purr-ticularly cute and tiny. Fur example, little kittens are very smol and should be kept safe and happy at all times, especially outdoors! Have a peek at how that’s done here.

9. Feetsies

Feetsies is the word used to describe a cat’s feet. Cute cat feetsies can be curled up or bunny style and with or without socks.

8. Cat Loaf

A cat loaf occurs when a cat tucks their feetsies under their body so that they resemble an adorable loaf of bread. This position is most often used for effective cat-napping.

7. Cat Taps

Cat taps occur when a cute cat gently and repeatedly taps any object, hooman or fur-sibling to get the attention they rightly deserve. When you see a cat tapping, it’s time to purr-lay, hooman! Have a peek at 5 fun and easy ways to play with your fur baby here.

6. Boop

A boop occurs when a hooman, purr-ent or fur-sibling lightly taps a cat’s nose, also known as a snoot or meowzzle. Head boops are when a cat shows love by nudging their head on the object of their affection. Have a peek at the other ways cats show love here!

5. Mlem

A mlem occurs when a cat’s tongue licks their snoot, their fur, their water, the air or just about anything else. If your kitty is mleming too much, it may be a sign of stress or anxiety. Have a peek here to find out.

4. Blep

A blep is that cute moment when a cat tongue sits stationery outside of their mouth for a time. While they may look silly, all cat purr-ents know that the mind of a cat is always busy devising a new cunning plan. or maybe they’ve just had too much catnip.

3. Teefies

Teefies is the name for the tiny little teeth of a cat and can include the pointy and fierce canines and the itsy-bitsy incisors. Keep ’em pearly with our guide to kitty cat dental care here.

2. Toe Beans

Toe beans, also known as jelly beans or beans, is the word used to describe the adorable toes of the cat. Keep their beans, paws and claws healthy with our guide to scratching here.

1. Floof

A floof is any cute cat with purr-ticularly fluffy and voluminous fur. Have a peek at our guide to the fluffiest cat breeds for more fur-bulous floof!

Need more heckin’ cute? Of course you do! Have a little peek at the top 10 cutest cat videos of all time here or keep your fur babies cute AND safe with our purr-fect guide to choosing the best cat enclosure for your cat here.

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