Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Whipped Cats??

For reasons known only to God and my wife, Lynn, she keeps a little French-English phrase book of idiomatic expressions in the car, where I recently unearthed it from a pile of larger books, part of our mobile library.

This little book of idioms and proverbs, rarely used, shows the difference between an English saying, such as "I have other fish to fry," with the French equivalent, which is "J'ai d'autres chats a fouetter," which, as you know, means: I have other cats to whip. Mon Dieu! Whipping cats??

As an amateur feline historian who did extensive research on cats in past centuries for my book, Writing with Cats, I at once knew that I had uncovered one of the many deplorable pejorative references to cats in earlier times. (The French also say, in translation, "I have a cat [not frog] in my throat," perhaps because of the French habit of eating frogs' legs?)

The topic of our ambivalent human relationship with felines interests me: they are considered mysterious, elegant, intelligent, but also lazy, sneaky, and aloof, among other things. Adored by the ancient Egyptians, they were often demonized in the late Middle Ages in Europe, from which comes the expression, "let the cat out of the bag," presumably in reference to the deplorable habit of putting cats in leather bags for target practice--as was the practice in Jacobean England--and trusting that some good soul would come along and release the creature from its fate.

Today, they are enormously popular as pets and widely cherished. For all the millions of cat lovers--Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, Earnest Hemingway, among them--there have been some cat haters, too, people whose names aren't worth mentioning, whose fears of the feline have led to many awful superstitions.

Because the cat is quiet, a solitary who looks at you with knowing eyes, and is much too intelligent to be ordered around, I can see why it makes some people uncomfortable. But those who live with cats, as we do, know the truth: that they are ideal companions--quiet, affectionate, and playful. As I show in the book, they are deeply spiritual, spending most of their waking hours in prayer-like contemplation and as such contribute great peace to any home.

Maybe the ambivalence of cats is part of their eternal mystery and great charm.

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