Q From Mindy: I was discussing with my husband the other day the phrases no room to swing a cat and you can’t swing a dead cat without ... He related the usual origin of the phrases as referring to a cat o’ nine tails, but this sounds suspiciously like a folk etymology to me. Are the phrases really related, and do they refer to felines, whips, or some other cat-like object?
A The second of your phrases is variously completed as a way to express that a multitude of the person or thing described is present, as “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a priest” or “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a yuppie” or “you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Starbucks”. This, however, is a modern creation — I can’t find an example of it before the late 1980s.
It’s almost certainly derived from your other idiom, which is some centuries older. It is indeed frequently said to be from that awful naval punishment. Most reference books say something similar to this entry from the Penguin Dictionary of English Idioms of 2001: “The original phrase was probably ‘not room to swing a cat-o’nine-tails’, and dates from the time when sailors were flogged on board ship. The floggings took place on the deck because the cabins were too small to swing a cat in.”
A neatly summarised explanation, it falls down on two counts. Nobody would have even considered a flogging in a cabin because the ship’s company would have been mustered to witness punishment. The only place to do that would have been on deck. (The cat-o’nine-tails was also a prison punishment in some countries but similar comments apply; the person to be flogged was tied to a post in the prison yard for other prisoners to observe.) Secondly, I can’t find a case in the English literature databases that mentions swinging cats in the context of flogging, or even ships.
The earliest known example of the phrase is this:
One house I know more especially by Cursitors-Alley, where the Man, his Wife and Childe liv’d in a Room that look’d more like, for bigness, a big Chest than any thing else: They had not space enough (according to the vulgar saying) to swing a Cat in; so hot by reason of the closeness, and so nastily kept besides, that it took away a mans breath to put his head but within the doors.
Medela Pestilentiae (To Cure the Plague), by Richard Kephale, 1665. In case you’re wondering, the absence of an apostrophe in mans is not an error — possessive apostrophes were not yet in use.
It’s clear that even by 1665 the expression was idiomatic. This makes it very unlikely that it should derive from cat-o’nine-tails, since the first mention of that term for the punishment device is in William Congreve’s play Love for Love of 1695. Your view that the story is a popular etymology is well-based.
The only shipboard connection I can find is the suggestion that the origin lay not in a cat but a cot, the naval term for a suspended bed that would swing with the motion of the ship. A contributor to the Calcutta Review in 1889 wrote: “Few cabins were spacious enough to allow of a cot swinging freely lengthwise (query, is not this the origin of the phrase ‘room to swing a cat in’?)” The term appears in an old letter:
The only cabin allotted to my use is the mate’s under the poop deck mid-ships, where the mizen mast comes through, being so confined, that there is not space enough to swing a cott.
Letter from a Mr Bradshaw, the Commander of HM store-ship Malabar, dated 3 Feb. 1814, found in naval records and reproduced in a discussion of cat-swinging in Notes and Queries on 7 Mar. 1914.
But this is surely just as much a false trail as the cat-o’nine-tails story.
This leaves its true origin unexplained. If the cat were a literal animal, why anybody should want to swing it at all is unclear. If they commonly did, of course, then the idiom would have naturally followed. It’s this puzzle that leads so many reputable works to suggest the punishment story.
A possible explanation was contributed by a reader after this piece first appeared. She found the following:
Swinging cats as a mark for sportsmen was at one time a favourite amusement. There were several varieties of this diversion. Sometimes two cats were swung by their tails over a rope. Sometimes a cat was swung to the bough of a tree in a bag or sack. Sometimes it was enclosed in a leather bottle.
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 1898.
I wonder if this is not one of Ebenezer Brewer’s more fanciful derivations? It doesn’t appear in more recent editions, whose editors have progressively pruned the original work of its unsubstantiable oddities. However, the last of his list of amusements is mentioned several times in old documents and Shakespeare alludes to it in Much Ado About Nothing: “If I do, hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me.” Other reports describe putting a cat in a hanging cask with a load of soot; the game was to bash out the bottom head of the cask without getting yourself covered in soot. Black cats were often chosen because of a belief that they were associated with witches.
It may indeed be that the origin lies in some such ancient cruel game.