A Tennis Racket – cover of The Judge (New York) of 10th June 1916
The phrase to look, or to feel, like something the cat has brought in means to look, or to feel, exhausted or bedraggled.
The earliest instances that I have found are from the USA and date from the early 1910s. In Extracts from the Diary of the Motorboat Bug, published in The Motor Boat: devoted to all types of power craft (New York) of 10th January 1911, ‘Hy Gage’ wrote:
Hanging around the clubhouse to-day. Member brought in a long-haired party with a Windsor tie and a face like the “Soul Kiss.” Thought it was something the cat brought in when I first saw it. Member said the party was a paint slinger of repute. Did not specify what kind of repute. Curious to know what effect my sting would have on such a specimen. Resisted temptation to jab him when I thought it might make him want to join Order of Motorboat Bugs. I had too much respect for other members.
Pearson’s Magazine (New York) of December 1912 published a short story titled A Man’s Job, by Winona Godfrey, which thus begins:
“My!” giggled Miss McBride. “I’m just dyin’ to see the new ﬂoorman.”
“Are you?” replied Aileen indifferently. “Most of ’em look like something the cat brought in.”
In Mrs. Budlong’s Christmas Presents (1912), the American novelist, screenwriter, film director and music composer Rupert Hughes (1872-1956) makes a character say:
“Here we’ve been and gone and skimped our own children to buy something that would show up good in Mrs. Budlong’s back parlor, and when I laid eyes on it in all that clutter—why, if it didn’t look like something the cat brought in, I’ll eat it!”
Finally, the following is from The Inland Printer (Chicago) of May 1913:
Line Engraving at 6 Cents.
Where are the line engravings of yesterday? Those clean, sharp, faithful-to-the-original plates? asks a writer in the Graphic Arts, and here are a few extracts from his description of what happens when one has the courage to apply for good line engraving to-day:
If you ask the average engraving-shop runner why your line-plates look like something the cat brought in, if he is a “live one” he will look upon you with the pity you deserve and inform you that in his shop they regard line engraving as a by-product, and if you want to see some real stuff they have it in four-color half-tone.
The verb drag instead of bring was used in The Judge (New York) of 10th June 1916:
If the baby is pretty, tell the mother that it is the very image of her. If it looks like something the cat dragged in, intimate that it takes strongly after the old man.—Columbia State.
We can see where bachelor editorship is due to sustain a severe loss—when the mother is told that her baby looks like something the cat dragged in.