It’s pretty safe to say the British love their pets. With over 40 percent of British households owning a pet, it is no surprise the English language contains a lot of idioms relating to pets. So today we pick a side, sorry dog lovers, we’re going with cats! A whole English lesson on English idioms that relate to cats.
Although the popularity of pets in the UK is ever growing in 2021, it hasn’t always been this way. In 1939, just before the second world war, we actually had something called the British pet massacre!
However pets, mostly cats and dogs, have become a part of the English language. And we have lot’s of cat and dog related English idioms in everyday English.
Dogs come when they're called; cats take a message and get back to you later.
⭐ Mary Bly, Author
So today we pick a side, and
cats won, even though more British have dogs as pets than cats. So we are going to talk you through some contemporary cat idioms you might here in the UK today.
Flock Rhyme Herd Hooves
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Hi there and welcome to the latest podcast from Adept English. And I just wanted to say a quick thankyou for listening to our podcasts and a special thankyou to those of you who are helping Adept English grow by giving us reviews!
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Today let’s do some more English idioms because they can be very confusing. If you’ve done our course – our free course that is, ‘The Seven Rules of Adept English’, you’ll have a good idea how Adept English works. And you’ll know about Rule 5. Rule 5 is about the importance of learning by context, so just as you’re doing now.
New words stick in your head better, if they’ve got context, if you make associations with that word – so of course, I’ll do that with the idioms I’m giving you today. I’ll help you make an image or a picture in your head to help you remember the new words and phrases.
The other part of Rule 5 is ‘Nothing but English’ so the idea is that you start to think in English. So doing lots of listening like this means that you haven’t time to translate – you just have to stay with me, in English as you listen. Are you curious about the Seven Rules? I keep mentioning the Seven Rules and you think ‘I wonder what that course is all about, Hilary keeps talking about it’.
Well, you could just sign up – and find out. It’s a free course, after all – and there’s a reward at the end of it too. So sign up to the Seven Rules on our website at adeptenglish.com today to find out more.
So let’s have a look at some more idioms today – we use them all the time in English conversation. And there are so many idioms in English involving the word ‘cat’ – ‘cat idioms’ if you like, CAT. British people are often pretty keen on their pets, so that there are idioms used in English conversation which relate to cats isn’t surprising.
Our two cats have been ill last week, each with something different, so we’ve been nursing them and looking after them. One is better now and the other is getting better. Brits are sentimental about their pets and when I tried to count online the number of idioms which mentioned cats, it was over thirty well known ones! So I’m not going to do them all today. But let’s do a couple.
OK, so if someone says to you, ‘The cat is out of the bag?’ Do you know what that means? Well, you understand the word cat I would think. And a ‘bag’ is fairly common, BAG – it’s what you use to carry things in. So imagine a cat in a bag – it’s unlikely to be a happy cat, I think. So in English if we say ‘the cat is out of the bag’, we mean ‘the secret is out, the secret has been told’.
‘A secret’ is a piece of information which hardly anybody knows. And if the secret has been told, well then it’s no longer a secret – people know and there’s a reaction! So it’s like ‘letting a cat out of a bag’ because once the cat is out, it might be very difficult, perhaps impossible to get the cat back into the bag. I
f you have a cat and you have to take the cat to see the vet – that’s the cat doctor – then hopefully you don’t use a bag for that. But you may have difficulty putting your cat into his carrying box, his pet carrier to go to the vet. And if you say someone ‘let the cat out of the bag’, there’s a sense that it’s something which shouldn’t have been told, it’s have a big effect and of course, it can’t be untold now – it’s out there.
And example of how you would use this phrase?
- You could say ‘The teacher let the cat out of the bag, when she told the children that the headmaster was leaving the school’. That means that she wasn’t supposed to tell them yet!
- Or that ‘That shampoo is no longer available online. The cat is out of the bag – and they are sold out!’ So if you let the cat out of the bag about something being good, it can mean it becomes very popular, everyone wants it.
- Or you may come across this phrase in politics. If a politician has been up to no good – doing bad things in secret, but their reputation is still good. When the bad thing comes out and becomes known – and we might say ‘Hah! The cat is out of the bag. They’ve been caught now!’
Another idiom? How about a fairly modern one? One of the phrases you might hear someone say is ‘It’s like herding cats!’ Vocabulary first. The verb ‘to herd’ – HERD is related to the noun, ‘a herd’, which is spelt the same. A ‘herd’ is a group of animals, like cows or goats or buffalo.
Animals with hooves these are, HOOVES – so it’s a group of animals with similar feet that tend to ‘herd together’. So a herd of cows or a herd of goats. For sheep, you’d usually say ‘flock’, FLOCK. So on a farm, if you want to gather your sheep together or move the sheep to a different field, then you would probably have a sheepdog to help you. The sheepdog would run behind the sheep and make them go in a particular direction.
A photograph of a flock of British sheep. You are unlikely to herd cats as easily.
So we might say that ‘the dog is herding the sheep’ or when the sheep are gathering together, we might say ‘the sheep are herding’. As animals, they group together – that’s ‘to herd’. So this expression, ‘It’s like herding cats’ is usually meant to be amusing – and said in frustration. If you know anything about cats, you’ll know they’re not like sheep. If you try to ‘herd cats’, they’ll all run in different directions, one hides under the sofa, another runs upstairs.
Cats are not herd animals. So when someone says ‘It’s like herding cats’, that’s the literal meaning. But as an idiom, we talk about ‘herding cats’ when we’re trying to organise a group of people to do something and it’s proving difficult. So you might be trying to get your friends together to go out to a restaurant. And just as you’ve organised which evening you’re going on, and which restaurant you’re going to go to, someone suggests a different restaurant or someone else wants to do it on a different evening.
So you might say ‘Organising this meal out with my friends – it’s like herding cats’. Or another scenario. If you were taking your family out for the day – you might have just got them all in the car, then someone decides they need the toilet. Then another one then goes off to get an extra scarf. Then just they’re coming back, someone else gets out of the car to go and find their glasses or change their shoes. This sort of thing is very familiar in my family – so setting off can take a while. It’s like herding cats – trying and failing to get everyone moving in the same direction!
One last cat idiom? Here’s an old traditional one, but we still say it sometimes. ‘When the cat’s away, the mice will play’. So you can hear that’s got a nice rhyme in it. A rhyme, RHYME is when two words have endings that sound the same, so here ‘away’ and ‘play’.
So ‘When the cat’s away, the mice will play’. The ‘cat’s’ with apostrophe s here – it’s not possessive. It’s a shortened form – ‘when the cat is away’. So the literal meaning is easy – a mouse, MOUSE is a little creature that’s furry and it might live in your house. Think Micky Mouse or Minnie Mouse – though they’re not much like real mice, are they? And if you’ve got more than one mouse, the word is ‘mice’, MICE.
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You can imagine that if there is a set of mice, living in a house, if the cat was away, the mice might feel less scared, more free to come out and be seen around the house. If you like really old cartoons, you might think of Tom and Jerry perhaps.
So that’s the literal meaning. But when we use this phrase as an idiom, what we mean is that if the person who normally keeps order, is away, the person who’s ‘in charge’ is not there – people behave differently. You can imagine, when the boss is on holiday, the staff in an office, might relax a bit, have more cups of tea, chat a bit more, use their headphones, be on the internet more, not work quite so late.
‘When the cat’s away, the mice will play’. If you leave your teenager in charge of their younger siblings – that means their younger brothers or sisters - you might return to find that the younger ones have stayed up and watched TV instead of going to bed, or there’s ice cream all over your carpet. Your authority hasn’t been there, so all kinds of things which wouldn’t normally be allowed have been happening! ‘When the cat’s away, the mice will play’.
So there we are.
Learn every day English with Adept English. There are three lovely cat idioms for you to remember. Do you have cat idioms in your language? If you do, let us know what they are! Keep doing your English language listening – and don’t forget to do some English conversation practice to really speed along.
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.