Skinning cats…where did that come from?

People say, “there is more than one way to skin a cat”…if only they knew where that came from.

My favourite expression is “There are more ways to choke a cat than by stuffing its arse with butter”.

Anyway…where did this expression about skinning cats come from?

In a November 2010 press conference, President Barack Obama said that “cap and trade” was “just one way of skinning the cat.” It is a common expression, used to imply that there are plenty of ways of doing something. But a closer look at its origins reveals it is a somewhat unsavoury turn of phrase.

Dave Wilton, an English PhD candidate at the University of Toronto and a member of the American Dialect Society, has pointed out that in the 1492 book “Salomon and Marcolphus” there is a scene in which Marcolphus says, “A catte that hath a good skyn shal be flayne.” Solomon responds, “A ferdefull [fearful] woman shabbe [shall be] praysed.” Wilton believes that the exchange implied that a cat’s fur was a valuable commodity and should not be wasted on the cat. “It’s almost certainly quite literal,” Mr Wilton said. “The flaying of cats has a proverbial life that goes back quite far.” 

And the rather violent act of skinning a cat is no easy thing, says John Youngaitis, a taxidermist in New York. “There is not more than one way to skin a cat.”

So the phrase is grotesque and factually incorrect. But wait: it gets worse. By the 16th century, both “cat” and “pussy” became slang terms for women, especially prostitutes, says Mr Wilton. “Green’s Dictionary of Slang” records a first citation of “cat” to describe a prostitute in 1401. Cat-related slang to refer to female genitalia goes back to 1699 in the “Oxford English Dictionary” and 1683 in “Green’s”. (It’s probably why we still say “cat-calling.”) By the 19th century, according to “Green’s”, “cat-skinning” was slang for sexual intercourse. As an example, he pointed to the song “The Slashing Costermonger” from the 1837 book “The Cuckold’s Nest of Choice, Flash, Smutty, and Delicious Songs, Etc”. One phrase in the song is:

My vife, she’s such a taste refined,
All hearts she must be vinning,
For ven the turfing trade is bad,
She gets blunt by cat skinning.

“It is possible, perhaps likely, that ‘more than one way to skin a cat’ was originally a double entendre,” explains Mr Wilton. The catchphrase probably always carried the primary meaning that there is more than one way to achieve one’s aim, but most likely, “It originally had a sexual double meaning that men could smirk at.”

Maybe this is not the best image for the president of the United States to be evoking. Yetlanguage evolves based on our usage of it. So although figurative expressions have literal roots, collective ignorance of these roots ensures politicians (and other linguistically lazy types) can really “go to town” with them without committing a major offence.

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