Letting the Cat out of the Bag

Home cat in the gardenAfter I published my post on the etymological origins of dogs last week, some of you cat people wanted to know about the origins of the word cat. Because I love my readers so much—and I’m a sucker for peer pressure—today I give you the history of the word cat.

But before we get into the nitty-gritty of our feline friends’ nomenclature, I should remind both cat and dog people that I am currently running a Kickstarter project, and one of the rewards is to have your dog or your cat immortalized as a character in my novel.

Alright, so let’s look at cats.

Our modern English word, cat, comes from the Old English catt, which was in general use by the eighth century. Catt, in turn, came from the West Germanic/Proto-Germanic word kattuz, which was recorded in the 400s. Around the same time, many similar words appeared across Europe, such as katte (Old Frisian), köttr (Old Norse), kat (Dutch) kazza (Old High German), Katze (German), and katta (Byzantine Greek). All of these incarnations evolved from the Late Latin word cattus, which was first recorded as catta by Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis) in the year 75.

In addition, by the twelfth century, cattus also evolved into the Old Irish and Gaelic cat, Welsh kath, Breton kaz, Italian gatto, Spanish gato, and French chat. And it  was probably the source of words for cat in the Slavic language group, such as kotuka and kotel’a (Old Church Slavonic), kotka (Bulgarian), koška (Russian), kot (Polish), kate (Lithuanian), and even katti, from the non-Indo-European language, Finnish.

Although we can’t be certain, cattus probably came from the Afro-Asiatic languages. For example, the Nubian word for cat is kadis, and the Berber word is kadiska. And the Arabic word qitt refers to a tomcat. Cats were domesticated in Egypt by 2000 BC, but they were not a common household animal to Greeks and Romans at that time.

Cattus replaced the Latin word feles, which was used to refer to a domestic cat, a wild cat, or a marten.

The word cat was extended to include large wild cats, such as lions, tigers, ocelots, and more, around the 1600s. And the idea that cats have nine lives has been around since at least the mid-1500s.

So, not quite as mysterious as the origins of the word dog, but still pretty cool. I guess they liked the way the Egyptians treated them, so they launched a campaign that exploded across Europe. Master strategists, those cats.


Image credit: Kavita / PhotoXpress.com

9 thoughts on “Letting the Cat out of the Bag

  1. Suzanne I loved reading your post about cats.I learned so much just by reading your post. All I knew was they are cat in English,in French you already mentioned Chat and in my language (Bengali) Birhal, and in Urdu it is Billi. Thank you Suzanne. When is your book coming out? I’d like to buy a copy,please.

    1. Thanks Ranu! I’m glad you enjoyed it. And thanks for sharing the Bengali and Urdu words for cat. 🙂

      I’m not sure when my book will be out, but I will announce it on my blog as soon as I know. Thank you so much for your interest!

  2. Fascinating. Cats are brilliant strategists indeed. I wonder why they get nine lives specifically? Nine seems a bit of an arbitrary number to stop at.

    1. Well, I’m sure they have their reasons. Maybe napping lost its appeal in the double digits? Or dealing with humans became unbearable? Or nine is the magic number to open the gate to the alternate cat universe?

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