2011-10-05

Weird Words: The Cat that got the Canary

In her new thriller, Cruel Justice, Mel Comley introduced me to the expression the cat that got the canary. This extremely evocative expression puts me in mind of Sylvester who, after long years of torment, finally manages to swallow that damn bird. In the context where Mel uses it, someone is feeling very pleased with themselves. An expression exists for this, and it is: the cat that got the cream.

This is an expression that has existed for a very long time indeed, and is an expression of smugness or self-satisfaction, as it describes the expression of the first cat at the churn, who gets to drink the cream on the top of the milk before the other cats arrive and have to make do with the milk.

This isn't quite what Mel was going for, though I think it would have fit.  The cat that got the canary is somehow … predatory.

2 comments:

Damon J Courtney said...

Also sometimes written as the cat that ate the canary. They both refer to a sense of smugness or self-satisfaction, usually while concealing something or being mischievous. I don't think a cat who is first to the cream is being mischievous, just smart. Not sure in what context Mel used it here though, so maybe cream is better.

I think you use cream because you're British, and you people have a weird way of saying everything. I mean, really. A-loo-min-yum? Centri-few-gul? Who talks like that?! 0-]

Harry Dewulf said...

A bit more research reveals that the canary version first appears (allegedly) in the USA in the nineteenth century and gradually spreads to the rest of the English speaking world. Certainly it gained a whole lot more currency with the advent of Sylvester and Tweety.
The cream version is at least 200 years older - which makes sense really since Canary birds weren't known at all in Europe until the seventeeth century and didn't become common household pets until the nineteenth.
I think the English language is all the richer for having both expressions.