10 International Idioms About Cats
By Laura Nagle
It’s time to let the cat out of the bag: English isn’t alone in featuring cats in its idioms. In languages from all over the world, expressions of all kinds are enhanced by the mention of our feline friends. That should come as no surprise; after all, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Drop these fun international idioms into conversation and soon you’ll be looking like the cat that got the cream.
1. You’re like a cat walking around hot porridge.
Looking for a more relevant phrase than the medieval hunting-inspired “beat around the bush”? In some Scandinavian languages, evasive behavior is exemplified by a cat who seeks to avoid eating too-hot porridge, as in the Swedish expression att gå som katten runt het gröt or its Danish equivalent, at gå som katten om den varme grød. Cat/porridge interactions might not be an everyday occurrence in your household, but you get the idea.
2. Let’s call a cat a cat.
If porridge imagery isn’t your thing, but you still need someone to be direct and tell it like it is, cats can still help you out. The French expression appeler un chat un chat (borrowed by speakers of Dutch, especially in Belgium, as een kat een kat noemen) suggests there’s nothing more straightforward than calling a cat a cat.
3. You’re just being shy-shy cat.
Even the most sociable cats are bashful when it suits them, but we know it’s only an act. In Indonesian, if a person is acting coy, they’re being malu-malu kucing, or “shy-shy cat.”
4. What would the cat’s son do but kill a mouse?
This business about apples that “didn’t fall far from the tree” isn’t terribly useful as a metaphor for human behavior. Apples aren’t sentient; we can’t empathize with an apple’s journey. Enter the charming Irish phrase Cad a dhéanfadh mac an chait ach luch a mharú? The cat’s son has free will, yet he succumbs to his natural urge and kills a mouse, thus fulfilling his destiny. Now that’s a narrative we can relate to!
5. A cat ran between them.
Gossiping about folks who had a falling-out, but the reasons for the conflict are unclear? According to the Russian expression Между ними кошка пробежала (mezhdu nimi koshka probezhala), the whole thing happened because a cat got in the way. Hey, it’s not like you had a more logical explanation.
5. My house/apartment/garden is like a cat’s forehead.
The Japanese expression “猫の額” (neko no hitai, literally “cat’s forehead”) is used to describe small spaces. The tiny-house movement would have far more appeal if people were describing their diminutive dwellings as cats’ foreheads, or—hear us out—designing them to look like cats’ foreheads. So cute!
7. There’s a locked-up cat here.
If you’ve ever had to wrestle a cat into a carrier, you know just how dangerous a cornered feline can be. Next time you have suspicions about a situation, instead of saying there’s “something fishy going on,” take a cue from the Spanish phrase aquí hay gato encerrado.
8. One who has no dog hunts with a cat.
While cats are fearsome hunters, they don’t have a great reputation for following directions, so it stands to reason you might prefer a different hunting companion. The idea behind this Portuguese adage, quem não tem cão caça com gato, is that we make do with the resources we have, even if they’re not ideal.
9. Who would raise a cat’s tail, if not the cat himself?
The Finnish expression kuka kissan hännän nostaa ellei kissa itse invites you to brag about your own accomplishments. Sure, you could “toot your own horn” or “sing your own praises,” but this phrase lets you reframe your boastfulness as self-sufficiency.
10. When the cat goes away, the mice reign.
Even the cat-based idioms that already exist in English have some room for improvement, so let’s end by tweaking a classic saying. “When the cat’s away, the mice will play” is all well and good, but is playing really all the mice want to do? Perhaps they’re more ambitious than that. The Swahili adage paka akiondoka, panya hutawala takes things a step further, putting the mice in charge.