This post may seem a bit odd at first after others like “Semantic Satiation” and “ASMR and Frisson.” Why am I writing about so simple a word? But this word isn’t simple at all. In literal meaning it isn’t terribly complex, but once you add in all the cultural connotations and associations, this three letter word is absolutely enormous. I argue that the word “cat” has made a larger impact on most of your lives than almost any other.
Because this word is just so huge, there is no way for me to cover it entirely. Instead, I am going to give you the nine largest ways it has influenced my life as a piece of language.
- Learning Tool
“Cat” is one of the first words English speakers learn. It is one syllable long, only three letters, and easily pronounceable, which makes it a nice introduction to words in speaking, reading, and writing.
The word is also a noun, which is probably the easiest part of speech to understand from a young age. Before learning what something does, how to describe it, or the intricacies of grammar, we learn what things are. We can point to different parts of our world and identify them as our first bits of communication. Cats are recognizable parts of our world as they populate many of our homes and our cartoons, and the word can be matched to pictures of cats with relative ease.
“Cat” is also one of the first words we learn to understand music in language. This is largely in thanks to Dr. Seuss who created “The Cat in the Hat” and introduced generations of children to rhyming. There are so many simple words to rhyme with cat: at, that, sat, bat, rat, brat, splat, flat, chat. This word is especially useful for teaching children how sound is important to the use of words.
- Literal Definition
From my dictionary:
cat 1 |kat| noun
a small domesticated carnivorous mammal with soft fur, a short snout, and retractile claws. It is widely kept as a pet or for catching mice, and many breeds have been developed.
ORIGIN Old English catt, catte, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch kat and German Katze; reinforced in Middle English by forms from late Latin cattus .
This definition is only the first in a truly long list of possible others. The definition can refer to simply the domestic house cat or can refer to all felines, depending on the context. Not only this, but it is sometimes used to identify mammals that just look feline like the “ring tailed cat” or even creatures that vaguely resemble felines like “cat fish.”
This definition begins so simply, but before too long, it expands into an umbrella term to include everything with some descriptive quality of “catness.” There is something inherent in cats that seems to be so distinct that we can recognize it even in things that are not cats at all.
- Slang and Common Phrases
Even after you get through the more common definitions, you arrive at all those uses of the word which grew into use over time.
Cat came into use to refer positively to a person (especially a man), at first among jazz musicians, and then later across much of the United States culture. It isn’t used as much anymore, but it definitely left its mark. Sometimes used in the phrase “Cool cat.”
Sometimes “cat” or the adjective “catty” can refer to someone (especially a woman) who is spiteful or hurtful in their use of language, and possibly a malicious gossip.
A “copy cat” is someone who mimics others.
A “scaredy cat” is someone who is easily frightened.
There are also a variety of sayings that have to do with cats including, but not limited to:
“Playing a game of cat and mouse”
“Has the cat got your tongue?”
“Someone let the cat out of the bag”
“Like a cat on a hot tin roof”
“You look like something the cat dragged in”
“While the cat’s away, the mice will play”
“It’s raining cats and dogs”
“Curiosity killed the cat”
“There’s more than one way to skin a cat”
“To be the cat’s meow”
- Synonyms and Thesaurus Entries
The word and concept of a cat is so important, there is an extremely large number of other words that refer to cats: Alley cat, feline, furball, kitten, kitty, kitty-cat, mouser, puss, pussy, pussycat, tabby, tom, tomcat.Each of these contains its own set of connotations that can be applied to cats.
There are so many colorful cats in literature. There’s no way I can discuss them all here, but I’d like to at least mention three notable works with cats.
The first is The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, which I already mentioned. It gets to be mentioned twice in the same post because it is an excellent book. The cat in this book lives out the trickster archetype, being mischievous and plotting while all the while remaining humorous and oddly charismatic. You never know what to expect with this cat, except trouble.
The second is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The Cheshire Cat is also a bit of a trickster, well known for its wide grin and its ability to appear and disappear, partially or altogether, whenever it pleases. This cat also seems to be a philosopher and conversationalist, often trying to spark some new line of thinking.
The third is a book recently given to me by a good friend of mine: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot. This entire book is made up of fun poems about cats, each with their own distinct characteristics and personalities. If you want to learn all about Jennyanydots, Growltiger, Rum Tum Tugger, Mungojerrie, Rumpelteazer, Deuteronomy, Mr. Mistoffelees, Macavity, Gus, Bustopher Jones, Skimbleshanks, and Cat Morgan, you should read this book.
- Historical Relevance
The word “cat” describes an animal, but it also describes the relationship of that animal to humanity.
This will be the briefest history of cats I can tell: The whole genus of cats shares a common ancestor that probably roamed Asia about six million years ago. At some point the cats became domesticated, and many theorize that the cats domesticated themselves.
Human society attracts a lot of rats and mice, and the cats began living alongside humans. Their treatment varied: people in ancient Egypt admired and respected cats, some cultures skinned them for clothing and blankets, other cultures (like ours) thought they were adorable and invited them indoors.
Unlike domesticated dogs, cats’ bodies and behavior do not vary as dramatically from their wild counterparts. Cats are also much better able to survive in the wild than most domesticated animals, and are able to interbreed with wild cats.
Cats generally do not obey humans or take any commands, but we give them greater privileges in our homes than most other pets. We let them on the furniture, we clean up after them instead of sending them outside, and we entertain them when they’re bored. Humans feel honored if they allow us to pet them. They don’t really need us, but they stick around anyway.
In short, this word tells a story: we love cats, and they find us useful.
- Cultural Representations
The word “cat” represents cultural ideas rather than just referring to the animal itself. Cats have a large role in our society, often contrasted against dogs.
Cats are associated with ideas of independence, curiosity, slyness, intelligence, balance, and other prized qualities that have to do with the loner spirit. (Dogs, in turn, are associated with loyalty, trust, friendliness, training, and other traits associated with either nurturing or protecting.) In some ways, they represent two old archetypes which a lot of people can relate to.
We have “cat people” and “dog people” who each identify with one animal or the other, usually having to do with the person’s sense of self and which pet they formed the strongest bonds with. Sometimes “cat people” are associated with a level of femininity, sometimes a higher social class, and sometimes with loneliness.
Even though dogs are generally characterized as more affectionate, the jokes about people not finding a romantic partner usually involve them finding companionship in many cats.
- Internet Symbolism
Adding to the cultural significance that was already present in the connotations surrounding “cat” is the new symbolism from the relatively recent internet culture.
Cats are completely famous on the internet. In a world where anyone with unrestricted internet access has an enormous wealth of human knowledge at their fingertips, many spend the majority of that time looking at cats: pictures, videos, memes, drawings, comics, or any other catlike representation. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the internet, as a community or culture, has a cat obsession.
There have been articles written about this phenomenon that go into much greater depth than I can here. Anyone willing to really dive into this could probably write a book on why cats have become symbols of internet culture.
Here is my take: Cats are cute, expressive, and allow us a sense of community across otherwise important barriers. There is something in cats that reminds the average internet user of themselves. They are walking contradictions— they want to be loved but get angry or frightened all the time, they are independent and dignified but rely on others for food and often embarrass themselves, and they frequently act both with cruelty and kindness.
Cats wander around, somehow finding purpose in random bursts, then lose motivation entirely and flop over onto the ground. They represent the struggle to create meaning in our lives when we also want to be lazy, they represent our need to understand ourselves despite contradiction, and they represent the possibility of finding connection and affection.
Not only this, but they do it in an adorable and funny way.
- Modern Day Mythos
Evolving out of experiences, associations, connotations, cultural significance, internet symbolism, and general humor, a modern mythology cats has been created.This generally includes the following:
Cats believe they are gods
Cats can become fluid.
Cats love boxes and may be drawn to them by a mysterious cat-force.
Cats make people stupid or have the ability to control humans.
These ideas seem to just be common knowledge in my group of friends. The other night a friend mused with me that we remind cats that they’re cats as an incantation to keep them from drifting into their liquid form. We then theorized that perhaps if we let the cats all become liquid, they would transition into their true godlike state and become a single, fluid entity that wrapped around the stars, and the universe would be nothing but a hum of purring.
Maybe that part is just us.