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Ramping cat

Q From Paul Darkins: In the village of Wallingford in Oxfordshire there is a pub named The Ramping Cat. Can you enlighten me (and my wife, who used to enjoy the odd glass of wine in said establishment) as to precisely what a cat is doing when engaged in ramping? As cat-lovers we are concerned that it may not be entirely legal!

A In that exact phrase, it’s a quotation from Shakespeare, from a speech by Hotspur in King Henry IV, who is explaining that Glendower angers him through telling him

Of the dreamer Merlin, and his prophecies;
And of a dragon and a finless fish,
A clipt-wing’d griffin and a moulten raven,
A couching lion, and a ramping cat.

This last line is especially confusing to modern readers. We would replace couching by crouching (more specifically and accurately the technical term couchant) and replace ramping by rampant. Shakespeare’s terms were from the heraldry of his time, describing the stereotyped ways in which animals were portrayed on shields.

A couching or couchant animal is crouching, but specifically lying with its body on its legs but its head erect. Shakespeare’s ramping is thought to derive from the Old French verb ramper (to creep, crawl or climb) that has also given us rampant. In its original English usage, rampant was a heraldic term for an animal, usually a lion, that was shown in profile facing right, standing on one hind foot with its forefeet in the air. This was taken to be a threatening or aggressive posture, which is why rampant now often has the sense of something wild or unrestrained.

All the examples from that of the fish onwards are of animals that are in some way acting against their true natures. The fish is without fins, the griffin has had his wings clipped, the raven has moulted, the lion is lying down submissively and the cat is adopting a threatening posture quite alien to our usual image of a timid puss.

If there is any fear of animal abuse at your local hostelry, it’s likely to be the cat that’s doing it.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 17 Jul. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 17 July 2004.