Nine Ways the Word “Cat” Influences Our Lives

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.

  1. 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.

     

  2. 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.

     

  3. 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”

     

  4. 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.

    .

  5. Literature
    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.

     

  6.  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.

     

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

     

  9. 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

    .Image
    (farleftside.com)

    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.

    Image
    (xkcd.com)

    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.

Advertisements

“Whale in the Cabinet”

(metaphor)

 

There is something really unique in the relationship between a novel and a writer. There are a lot of metaphors about a novel being a lover, a child, or some other person that the writer is supposed to care about, but if those metaphors were accurate, novelists would be the most negligent caregivers in the world. Even really dedicated writers give maybe four or five hours of their time to the story a day, and many more just leave the thing sitting there for months at a time while they research what to do with it or get distracted with other projects.

I just don’t think the parent-child relationship is quite right. I think parts of the metaphor are accurate. Writers have responsibility for their novels. They need to support their health and development, and they need to give all their effort. But as loving as it is, the relationship is often enormously awkward and guilt-inducing. So, allow me to introduce a new metaphor.

Novels are essentially whales in the cabinet. This occurred to me sometime in the fall of 2013 while talking to a friend and I’ve felt especially bad about my own whales since then.

What’s it like to have a whale in the cabinet? Well, every night you open the door and attempt to lift this enormous creature. It’s absolutely huge— you can’t see the whole thing, even. A good portion of this sea-beast might be in cabinet-Narnia.

You might struggle to heave a fin onto your shoulder and pull it a little. Some nights you even feel like maybe you made some progress. It seems like it might be sticking a little further out after your efforts. But then other nights, you just see it there, so far from the ocean, so helpless. You realize with horror just how weak you are and how ridiculously big it is, and how horribly far away the ocean is. And then you cry.

“How do I save you, whale?”

There’s no way you can move this whole whale. You’re just one little writer. No one’s even heard of you, really. No one is going to help you. You are the only person in the world who can get this whale to the water, the only one who cares about it. And if you don’t exhaust yourself every night just to move it maybe a few centimeters, or to just throw some water on it, the whale will die and it will be all your fault. Who entrusted you with a whale, anyway?

You go through school or work, you cook meals, you socialize, but all the while you know that the whale is still there. Sad. In the dark. You are growing to know the whale, and sometimes you even love it, and then guilt begins to eat you up from your belly. You bring it up to a few friends.

 

“I have a whale in my cabinet.”

 

“Really? I love whales. That’s so cool. What’s he like?”

“Don’t you think you could be spending your time better? Keeping whales in your cabinet isn’t a very reliable career option. It’s pretty irresponsible.”

“Huh. So how long has it been there?”

 

As time goes on you learn what gets the whale to move a little more. Maybe you’ve never done this before and maybe you have, but this whale is different from anything you’ve ever dealt with before. In your writing classes, you’ve carried fish from your cabinet to the ocean. They stay all wet and smell of fresh tides the whole time. Some of them have healthy, deep colors, their scales reflective and sparkling. Their mouths gasp and they panic a little on the walk there, but most shoot off into the water in good health and leave you feeling satisfied with a job well done.

But this is not a fish. It’s not even a porpoise. This is clearly the largest thing you’ve ever seen.

You imagine how much this whale could change the world. It has at least one giant brown eye (hopefully two, but it’s really squished) and when you watch it, you want to scream to the world how completely beautiful this whale is. You want to lead someone into your bedroom, throw open the cabinet door, and say “Look! This is my whale. It’s gorgeous and noble and mine.”

But you don’t, because then you see how sickly it is. It’s so far away from the ocean, and its skin is drying out no matter how much you pour on it. It’s crumpled, too, and the way it’s all shoved in your cabinet convinces you that it’s not only horrifically bruised but is probably developing scoliosis.

Before you know it, conversations about your whale become stressful.

 

“Didn’t you have a whale at some point? What happened with that?”

“Yeah… uh… it’s, um.”

 

“When are you planning on getting it back in the water?”

“Not for a while, I think. I’m just not sure how yet. I’ve been reading a lot about it, and I’ve practiced carrying fish a lot. It’s just… it’s so huge.”

 

“Can I see it?”

“NO! Not now. Not yet. It… it really looks awful. Oh, God, I’ll take care of it soon, I swear, and then you can see it.”

 

Inch by inch you move the whale. Maybe you find some friends who also have whales and you agree to help them move theirs if they help you move yours. With some assistance, it becomes easier, but it’s still your responsibility.

You grow familiar with your whale, and your loved ones do too as it moves gradually down the stairs and through the living room.

I like to imagine that eventually all whales make it to the ocean, and if they’re healthy enough, they find nice homes there and lots of people can enjoy watching and getting to know the whales.

Maybe your friends and family come to the shore to watch it and they compliment you saying,

 

“I really like that whale. I think you did a really good job getting it to the water.”

“It swims at a really nice pace.”

“This whale reminds me so much of a really healthy whale I saw once.”

 

Sure, there might be some other comments. Comments about how it swims crooked because of its twisted spine and the missing chunk of flesh from its tail, or how it appears a bit sickly at times— but gosh darn it, it’s your whale, and you did your best.

 

But, I wouldn’t know any of that, because I have two whales shoved in my cabinets right now, and I think they might be dying.

I’m sorry whales! I’ll start moving you again after I graduate, I promise.

 

(Also, if anyone is curious, poems are lobsters. Make of that what you will.)

The Insider’s Vegan Dictionary*

*May contain traces of hyperbole. Manufactured in a facility that also processes humor.

I’m currently on Spring Break and home with my family. We’re all vegan which means that

  1. My veganism is less a young-adult rebellion thing and more a family cohesion thing.
  2. We are obligated to inform others of our vegan state under threat of Official Vegan Law. (Hence this blog post.)

Like any subculture, we risk some ridicule and misunderstandings from members of the dominant culture who don’t understand why we would stray from tradition. Sometimes we are even perceived as a threat to normalcy or “the way things are done” and people become a bit uncomfortable with our existence, which is unfortunate. Other times people are totally accepting, which is always wonderful.

Another part of being part of a subculture is that we have access to a whole bunch of words, phrases, and jokes that not all people in the dominant culture are hip to. So, because I’m into sharing my experiences with words, I’d like to give up all my super secret insider vocabulary to you.

Some of these are just based on my experience and are of my own creation, others have emerged through conversations in person and online with others in the veg*n community.

Without further ado, I present to you:

THE INSIDER’S VEGAN DICTIONARY

  • Avocados– Pure delicious.
  • Cannibal Loophole – Some definitions of veganism have to do with consent. For example, mother’s breast milk is entirely vegan because it is willingly given from mother to child. Because of this concept, it is hypothetically possible for cannibalism to be vegan assuming the human flesh in question is given for consumption with informed consent from its owner.
  • Defensive Omnivore – Someone who, upon hearing that someone near them is vegan (or even occasionally just the word vegan) launches into a string of cliches intended to ridicule vegans or simply catch them off guard. This can be anything from talking about how misery makes meat taste better to a discussion on how to best protect innocent plants.
  • Defensive Omnivore Bingo– A bingo chart (created by Brian VanderVeen) that vegans keep with them and play when in a conversation with a Defensive Omnivore. If the Defensive Omnivore says enough cliches in a single conversation to win, you can turn in your Bingo sheet to a super secret vegan organization and earn a lifetime supply of free hummus.
  • 4129322738_d4e5fafd54_o Friend’s Dad Reaction – The sort of reaction someone has to discovering your veganism that launches them into teasing, joke making, or general proclamations of just how amazing steak and bacon are.
  • Friend’s Mom Reaction – The sort of reaction someone has to discovering your veganism that prompts them to ask if it’s okay that they’ve eaten meat near you or if there’s anything they could bring next time. Occasionally this reaction includes genuine concern that you might not get anything to eat.
  • Grandma-Vegan (adjective) – A food that is thoughtfully chosen or a prepared meal thoughtfully made to be accommodating for vegan guests, but contains some animal product. This is not out of malice, but usually out of an mistaken impression that chicken broth or butter is vegan.
  • Grandma-Vegan Dilemma – The dilemma when a vegan must decide whether to eat or turn down Grandma Vegan food, and whether or not to inform the person who chose or made the food that it’s not quite vegan.
  • Guest Dilemma –  The dilemma when a vegan is invited somewhere that food may be served and must decide whether to take their chances and potentially go hungry, to eat beforehand and potentially face the horrible guilt of realizing the host went out of their way to make something vegan, or to bring food with you just in case.
  • Host Dilemma – The dilemma when a vegan is a host and must decide whether cooking something that doesn’t even vaguely resemble what most omnivores are used to eating or to make something with vegan alternatives to animal products that will probably taste weird to them.
  • Ingredients Lists – What vegans spend most of their lives reading.
  • Level 5 Vegan – One who doesn’t eat anything that casts a shadow. This term was derived from an episode of the Simpsons, but I like to imagine it indicates a much larger dietary spectrum divided into levels.

    (-6 ) Murderer cannibals, or zombies
    (-5 ) People who eat primates and kick puppies
    (-4 ) Paleo dieters
    (-3 ) People who love eating meat but also like animals
    (-2 ) Meatless Monday practicers or people who don’t eat red meats
    (-1 ) Pescatarians
    ( 0 ) Flexitarians
    ( 1 ) Vegetarians
    ( 2 ) Vegans
    ( 3 ) Fruititarians
    ( 4 ) Fruititarians who only eat fruit that fell due to natural causes
    ( 5 ) Those who don’t eat anything that casts a shadow
    ( 6 ) Consumes only power and light: achieves autotrophic god-like state.

  • Meathalla – A hypothetical island where there is no source of food except meat, sometimes in the form of a living animal and other times pre-prepared. This island is the subject of the most common philosophical question brought up by inquiring omnivores, often phrased as such: “If you were stuck on an island with nothing to eat but meat, would you eat it?”
    Synonyms: Meat Island, Fleshy Shores.
  •  Nutritional Yeast – The secret spice of vegans that can be added to anything, and non-official sign that a person has now fully embraced veganism.
    Slang synoymn: “Nooch”
  • PETA – An organization secretly funded by the meat industry to make vegans look bad.
  •  Puns – The apparent favorite naming convention for vegan alternatives. (Ex: Egg McMuffin becomes Egg Trick Muffin. Jimmy Dean becomes Gimme Lean.)
  • Scramble – Vegan word for essentially anything that can be thrown into a pan and eaten for breakfast.
  •  Sexy Flexitarian – Those who prefer to eat vegan but are flexible and occasionally eat all sorts of food. They are the perfect hypothetical dates because whether you’re vegan or omnivore, you know they’ll be really into whatever you’re planning to serve.
  • Soy – A food that is used a lot in vegan cooking, especially in the States. (Contrary to the opinions of the subsection of Defensive Omnivores who are also homophobic, soy will not turn you gay.)
  • Veg*n – A word used that can be inclusive of vegetarians and vegans, usually to denote the larger community.
  • Veg*n Skill Trees – Essentially, your decisions help you level up your dietary identity in various directions based on your priorities.
    Examples:
    If you put all your points into ethics, you might end up a fruititarian.
    Put them all into health, you might end up a raw foodist vegetarian.
    Put them into environmentalism you might become a vegan localvore.
    Put them into cultural change, you might become a radical vegan activist.
    Put them into carbs and delicious, you might become a junk food veg*n.

    (I personally divided my points between all of those, so my skill tree is well rounded, but not particularly impressive in any area.)

  • Vegan Zombie Diet – Vegan zombies haven’t been observed yet, but, like regular zombies, their behavior has been the subject of discussion a lot lately.  Some assume that they would pursue grains instead of brains. Others theorize they may go after fungus, humans who are already dead, or just starve.
  •  Vitamin B12 – Nutritional requirement. If you feel compelled to ask a vegan where they get their protein, just substitute “Vitamin B12” for “protein” in the sentence and the vegan in question is guaranteed to respect you 20% more.

If you have any questions or other words to add, feel free to comment! I’ll be eating cheeseless pizza that is essentially a pile of vegetables on an edible dough-plate.