Cats and proverbs in different languages

Published 12th November 2010
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At first sight, cats and languages might seem two very different fields with little in common, but they are actually more related than expected. Cats indeed play a significant role in the idioms of various languages. Let’s just consider a few here.

How many English sayings with cats can you think of? Have a go and then try to picture them in your mind, some are really fun!
All cats are grey in the dark – Physical appearance is not that important.
A cat has nine lives – Cats can survive many accidents because they are able to land on their feet without injury.
It’s raining cats and dogs – It’s raining very heavily.

 

However, let’s not forget other languages. Cats play an important role in the following sayings too. Some are the same as in English, some are different and some use different animals to convey the same concept:
When the cat’s away, the mice will play. (English)
Quand le chat n’est pas là, les souris dansent. (French)
Wenn die Katze weg ist, spielen die Mäuse. (German)
Quando il gatto non c’è, i topi ballano. (Italian)
Mice seem to be partying in every language when cats are not there chasing them!

In the following example, different languages use different animals to convey the same concept. Let’s start with the French saying ‘Avoir un chat dans la gorge’. It literally means ‘to have a cat in the throat’ and this happens when you are ill and cannot swallow properly. The Germans believe frogs are more appropriate for that and so they say ‘Einen Frosch im Hals haben’.
In addition, French cats seem to be able to forecast the weather: ‘Quand le chat se débarbouille, bientôt le temps se brouille’ (When the cat washes behind both ears, it will snow). Unfortunately, I must confess that I have been observing my cats for years and they keep forecasting snow in August!

Last but not least, the picture you see below is a painting made in 1559 by Pieter Brugel the Elder. It’s called Netherlandish Proverbs and it depicts over 100 Dutch sayings. There is a cat somewhere in the painting as a symbol of a Dutch proverb that literally means ‘To bell the cat’, which means ‘to be indiscreet about plans that should be secret’. Now, can you spot the cat in the picture? Good luck with it!

 

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