From German hangovers to Iraqi silks, the English language loves its cats.
It’s International Cat Day, founded, apparently, in 2002 by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. So, take a break from cat pics and vids online today and enjoy some cat-themed etymologies. Catymologies? Yeah, no, yeah…I think I have to.
Like the species it names, the word cat has proven remarkably successful. It comes from the Old English cat, which the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests as early as 800. The form is found across European languages: Consider the German Katze, French chat, Irish cat, and Russian kot, to highlight a few examples. Latin had, yes, cattus and Byzantine Greek katta. The widespread use of the form leads some etymologists to suggest an Afro-Asiatic origin, pointing to the Nubian kadis and Berber kaddiska.
Latin’s cattus became French’s chat, taking a diminutive form of chaton. An Old French variant was chitoun, which English took up in the 14th century as kitoun, now kitten.
The regular Latin word for cat was feles, hence the scientific name for the domestic cat, Felis catus—and with some additional “happy” wordplay, Felix the Cat. The origin of Latin’s feles is simply unknown, perhaps not unlike its English counterpart, dog.
Catnip, first instanced in 1789, is an American English variant of catmint, an herb named for its appeal to cats. The nip in catnip—for all the associations with nibbles and bites that probably reinforced the word—actually comes from nep, shortened from nepte, an Old English name for the plant. Nepte, in turn, derives from nepeta, the Latin name for the family of catmints—which explains the scientific name for catnip, Nepeta cataria.
Some think the name for this baby butterfly comes from the Old French chatepelose, literally “hairy cat.” The first part, chat, means “cat,” as we’ve seen. The second, pelose, is from the Latin pilosus, “hairy, shaggy.” (Pilus is a Latin word for hair and shows up in words like depilatory, literally to “remove hair”.)
To caterwaul is to waul like a cater, or “cry like a cat,” with earlier forms of the word found in the late 14th century and specifically naming the mewing of rutting cats. The cater appears to correspond to the Dutch cater, “tomcat,” and the waul is probably ultimately imitative in origin, though are some interesting suggestions about a Germanic root for “anger.”
Speaking of wailing cats, a katzenjammer is a colloquial American English term for a “hangover” borrowed from German, where it literally means “cats’ wailing.” Katzen is the plural of Katze, which we saw above, and jammer is “wailing, distress.” The OED’s first cite is a doozy: It appears in the 1849 congressional record in reference to the aftermath of a “drunken frolic.” Katzenjammer went on to figure “depression” or “uproar.”
And speaking of tomcats (“male cat”), who or what is tom? Tom, here, is indeed a pet form Thomas, used a generic name for a man a la Jack, John Doe, or Tom, Dick, or Harry, hence tomboy and tomfool. Tom has been applied to other male animals historically, including tom-dog, tom-turkey, tom-parrot. As the OED cites a 1905 London Daily Chronicle article: “In his part [Hampshire] people spoke of tom-rats, tom-rabbits, tom-mice, and tom-hedgehogs.”
Tomcat overtook earlier names for he-cats like boar-cat, ram-cat, and gib-cat (from Gilbert) thanks in large part to the 1760, anonymously published “The Life and Adventures of a Cat,” whose puss protagonist was named Tom, like many other everyman figures before him.
A tabby cat is sometimes used for the female feline. This tabby ultimately refers to its colorful streaks and stripes, taken from an older name for a silk taffeta so patterned. Tabby, here, is from the French tabis, rendered from the Arabic ʿAttābīya, a district of Baghdad where the silk was made. The word’s associations with female cats, though, is probably due to the use of Tabby as a crude name for an “old maid,” shortened from Tabitha—itself from the Aramaic for “gazelle.”
Puss, as in Puss in Boots or pussycat, is an old conventional name for the house cat, dated as early as 1533. It probably originates as an imitation of a call made to attract a cat’s attention (puss-puss-puss-puss), and similar forms are found in many other languages (cf. Dutch poes, Lithuanian puižė, Irish puisín). Its diminutive form, pussy, named a “sweet, amiable girl” in the 16th century before devolving from there.