Cat got your tongue?

Example in use: “Why are you so quiet today? Has the cat got your tongue? Are you hiding something from me?”

Meaning: Comebody has nothing to say which appears to be a little suspicious or it makes you wonder why

Possible German equivalent: Hast du deine Zunge verschluckt?

Possible origin: Most sources suggest that theories around the origins of this expression are all fiction and that it actually just came to be used by children on the playground when speaking to each other. The saying sounds like it must be very old and if it was in fact, thought up by children then the fact that it first appears in print in 1881 might support that.

“Has the cat got your tongue, as the children say?”

Ballou's Monthly Magazine, Volume 53, US, 1881

In general, expressions used by children would be picked up and spoken by adults after some time and it was only when such sayings were spoken by adults would they start to appear in print.

As mentioned above, there are many theories around the source of this idiom such as sailors being punished with a “cat-o-nine-tails” (a type of whip), which would of course be so painful that the sailor would be unable to speak. Another often referenced idea links the phrase to an alleged custom of cutting out the tongues of liars and feeding them to the cats! A further legend suggest that, during the Middle Ages, witches’ cats would steal someone’s speech so that they couldn’t report that they had seen a witch.

Maybe these theories have been created and discussed to give more interest to the idiom, which sounds like it should have some mysterious origin, but in fact is just playground talk!

tongue / tʌŋ 


Welcome again to our weekly series that hopes to go behind the scenes of some rather typical English expressions.