Not enough room to swing a cat

Example in use: “I’ve moved into a new flat but unfortunately the kitchen is so small, there’s not enough room to swing a cat! I guess I’ll get used to it.”

Meaning: A place or space that is really small, usually negatively meant as in too small.

Possible German equivalent: Es ist so eng, dass man sich kaum undrehen kann

Possible origin: The most popular idea about the origin of the term is that it comes from the British Royal Navy during the 1700s when a whip with nine lashes – a “cat-o’-nine-tails” – would be used as a form of punishment. However, the space below deck was so tight and limited that this would need to be performed on the “poop” or upper deck.

There is some evidence though, that this phrase was being used during the 1600’s. The phrase “they had not space enough (…) to swing a cat in” can be found in a book about the plague in 1665 suggesting that the phrase was already known at that time, before the first known reference to the cat-o’-nine-tails whip in 1695.

Even before this time, there is one last theory that there might really have been a cruel practice of using cats as target practice swinging from trees during Elizabethan times and a reference can be found in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing dated 1599.

Today, I’m happy to report that there is no cat cruelty linked to using this idiom!

swing / swɪŋ

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