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Katy bar the door

Q From Bob Welborn: I have been looking for the origin of Katy bar the door. Any ideas?

A At least two. However, the more one investigates, the further away a simple answer seems to get.

The phrase Katy bar the door! (also as Katy bar the gate!; sometimes written as Katie) is a very American exclamation, more common in the South than elsewhere, meaning that disaster impends — “watch out”, “get ready for trouble” or “a desperate situation is at hand”.

Its source is uncertain. In the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Jonathan Lighter’s first example is from 1902. I’ve done slightly better than that, having found the phrase in a poem called When Lide Married Him by James Whitcomb Riley, which was published in a collection called Armazindy in 1894. A young lady marries a known drunkard against family advice and forcibly reforms him. One stanza ends with the line: “When Lide married him, it wuz ‘Katy, bar the door!’ ”, suggesting trouble ensued. This can’t be where the phrase came from, as US researchers Stephen Goranson and Ben Zimmer have found examples that predate it. The latter unearthed this:

When she say that, hits ‘Katy, bar ther do’, then, fer she’s gwineter do it.

Current Literature, Dec. 1888.

The one useful comment I can find in print is in William and Mary Morris’s book The Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, based on a comment from Nancy Britt of Arkansas. She suggested that it came from a traditional ballad. The one that she’s presumably referring to is medieval Scots, usually entitled Get Up and Bar the Door, which is still widely known and sung. But no version I’ve found mentions Katy anywhere.

The wife wants her husband to bar the door because the wind blows in and disturbs her at her cooking. The husband doesn’t want to be bothered to get up and do it. They agree after an argument that the first person who speaks will be the loser and will have to bar the door. Neither speaks, and neither bars the door. At night, robbers enter through the open door and eat the food the wife has prepared. Neither husband nor wife says anything because of their agreement and their stubborn refusal to be the first to give way. However, when the robbers propose to cut off the husband’s beard and kiss the wife (I assume these are euphemisms), the husband rises up in a rage and shouts at the thieves, at which the wife rejoices:

Then up and started our goodwife,
Gied three skips on the floor:
“Goodman, you've spoken the foremost word,
Get up and bar the door.”

Though the ballad is actually a wry look at marital obstinacy and its consequences, the most direct lesson is that not barring the door has led them to trouble. Barring the door with the intruders inside wasn’t such a smart move, either. So it is possible that the injunction, “bar the door!”, was adapted from it to suggest there is unpleasantness ahead.

However, many subscribers have pointed to a quite different story, also from Scotland, involving one Catherine Douglas. King James I of Scotland, a cultured and firm ruler, was seen by some of his countrymen as a tyrant. Under attack by his enemies while staying at the Dominican chapter house in Perth on 20 February 1437, he was holed up in a room whose door had the usual metal staples for a wooden bar, but whose bar had been taken away. The legend has it that Catherine Douglas, one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, tried heroically to save James I by barring the door with her naked arm. Her attempt failed, her arm being broken in the process, and the King was murdered, but she was thereafter known as Catherine Barlass.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote a poem about her in 1881, entitled The King’s Tragedy, of which one stanza is:

Like iron felt my arm, as through
The staple I made it pass: —
Alack! it was flesh and bone — no more!
’Twas Catherine Douglas sprang to the door,
But I fell back Kate Barlass.

This is as circumstantial a basis for the expression Katie bar the door as the one above, but it is stronger in its romantic associations and therefore rather more probable a source.

But the nearest that Rossetti comes to the conventional expression in the poem is “Catherine, keep the door!”. In its favour as a source is that the first example of Katy, bar the door! is from only nine years after the poem was published. Might the Scots ballad have combined with Rossetti’s poem in people’s minds? I wonder.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 1 Jun. 2002
Last updated: 16 Apr. 2011

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Last modified: 16 April 2011.