The theatre of punishment on board a Royal Navy warship around 1800
A man has been lashed to a grating (a hatch cover open for ventilation) to be flogged with the infamous cat-o’-nine- tails. The marines are drawn up on the quarterdeck with loaded muskets to ensure the punishment is carried out. Another man has stripped off his shirt and is protesting that he, and not the man lashed up, is the real culprit.
credit: Wind Machines – Age of Sail
The phrase no (or not) room to swing a cat is used in reference to a very confined space.
It is first recorded in the 1665 theological and medical treatise Medela Pestilentiæ, Wherein is Contained Several Theological Queries Concerning the Plague, by Richard Kephale. The author showed the poor as especially liable to plague, their living conditions and the nature of the disease seeming to be symbiotically connected.
Kephale gave an account of a poor family dying alone:
At this present, most of those houses which are infected are the inhabitations of poverty, in some obscure close place in the Suburbs; as towards St. Giles etc. One house I know more especially by Cursitors-Alley, where the Man, his Wife and Childe liv’d in a Room that look’d more like, for bigness, a great Chest than any thing else: They had not space enough (according to the vulgar saying) to swing a Cat in; so hot by reason of the closeness, and so nastily kept besides, that it took away a mans breath to put his head but within the doors.
The phrase therefore was already idiomatic when Kephale was writing.
It has often been said that no room to swing a cat originally referred to the cat-o’-nine-tails, the rope whip with nine knotted cords, formerly used (especially at sea) to flog offenders.
But this seems unlikely, because, as far as we know, the phrase had become colloquial before this particular whip was ever mentioned. The word cat-o’-nine-tails is first recorded in Love for Love (1695), a comedy by the English playwright William Congreve (1670-1729). Ben, a young rough sea dog, says to Miss Prue:
Look you young Woman, you may learn to give good words however. [...] Gad I fear a whipping no more than you do. But I tell you one thing, if you shou’d give such language at Sea, you’d have a Cat o’ nine tails laid cross your shoulders.
Additionally, flogging would never have taken place in a cabin because the crew would have been assembled on deck to witness the punishment.
However, the cat-o’-nine-tails was not only used at sea; this illustration shows George Smith, a garrotter, being flogged in 1872:
(illustration: Mary Evans/Getty)
Nevertheless, the phrase no room to swing a cat might have originally referred to actual ill-treatment of cats.
In Much Ado about Nothing (1599?), Shakespeare makes Benedick confirm his resolves of not yielding to love by this protestation:
If I do, hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me; and he that hits me, let him be clapped on the shoulder, and called Adam*.
(* Adam Bell, a semi-legendary English outlaw similar to Robin Hood.)
Bottles formerly were made of leather. Though perhaps a wooden bottle is here meant. About Benedick’s remark, the English Shakespearian commentator George Steevens (1736-1800) explained:
In some counties in England, a cat was formerly closed up with a quantity of soot in a wooden bottle (such as that in which shepherds carry their liquor), and was suspended on a line. He who beat out the bottom as he ran under it, and was nimble enough to escape its contents, was regarded as the hero of this inhuman diversion.
Again, in “Warres, or the Peace is broken”: “arrowes ﬂew faster than they did at a catte in a basket, when Prince Arthur, or the Duke of Shordich, strucke up the drumme in the ﬁeld”.
In a poem, however, called “Cornu-copiæ, or Pasquil’s Night-cap, or an Antidote to the Head-ache”, 1623, the following passage occurs:
“Fairer than any stake in Greys-inn ﬁeld, &c.
Guarded with gunners, bill-men, and a rout
Of bow-men bold, which at a cat do shoot”.
“Nor at the top a cat-a-mount was fram’d,
Or some wilde beast that ne’er before was tam’d;
Made at the charges of some archer stout,
To have his name canoniz’d in the clout”.
The foregoing quotations may serve to throw some light on Benedick’s allusion. They prove, however, that it was the custom to shoot at factitious as well as real cats.
Ill-treatment of cats may account for the proverb there’s more than one way to skin a cat and for the following French phrases:
- il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat, literally there’s nothing to whip a cat for, used when something’s not worth making a fuss about,
- avoir d’autres chats à fouetter, literally to have other cats to whip, the equivalent of to have other fish to fry (a variant used chiens, dogs, instead of chats).
And the Italian equivalent of to have other fish to fry is avere altre gatte da pelare, to have other cats to skin.
(Italian gatte is the plural of gatta, female cat – the masculine is gatto, its plural gatti.)
English school: An old woman whipping her cat for catching mice on a Sunday, from a collection of chapbooks on esoterica – 14th-17th centuries