Sitting in the Catbird Seat

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 - 05:13 PM

A conversation that happened on Tuesday, March 22, 2011 in the Lopate Show offices...

Blakeney: On Wednesday's Patricia T. O’Conner segment we’re talking about “cat words”—like “cat’s pajamas” and “kitty corner.”

Steven: That’s exciting. I’ve always wondered what’s up with the phrase “sitting in the cat bird seat.”  It doesn’t make any sense to me. At all. Is it about a cat that that is perfectly poised to catch a bird sitting in a seat? Since when do birds sit in seats? Has it caught and eaten a bird and is sitting in the bird’s seat? I do not understand this idiom! Then again, as a child, I imagined the phrase “shooting fish in a barrel” involved shooting fish out of some kind fish shooting device into a barrel on the other side of a field, not using a gun to shoot fish swimming around in a closed container. So, maybe I’m not the right person to be thinking about these things.

Blakeney: I think it’s about being in advantageous position. As in: you’re a bird, sitting in the seat above the cat. But we could just look it up… >>>

Steven: Ok, according to the internet, this is an American phrase which is derived from the behavior of the North American Catbird. They are part of a group of birds called the “mimic thrushes” and are, not surprisingly, really good a mimicking sounds, including an ability to mimic the sound of a cats meow, which is where they get their name. I would like to point out that a bird that can mimic the sound of a cat does not seem that advantageous from an evolutionary perspective. It seems to be asking for trouble. But, I digress. The site also points out that “Catbirds seek out the highest perches in trees to sing and display. The allusion to that is most likely to be the derivation of the term. It may also be the source of an earlier term with much the same meaning - 'sitting pretty'.” So, I guess you’re right…sort ofAren’t you glad we cleared this up?

Blakeney: Yes, so what about “cat got your tongue?” 


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Comments [16]

Bashi from Randolph, NJ

It just goes to show,as Gus Portokalos claimed, in the film, Big Fat Greek Wedding: "The root of all words, it's Greek.Now, gimme a word, any word, and I'll show you how the root of that word is Greek. Okay? How about ailurophile?"

Mar. 23 2011 02:31 PM
shashinyc from NYC

Always a fun segment but, alas, I don't find Ms. O'Connor to be deeply knowledgeable about the language. Today she labeled "nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs" a METAPHOR. It's a simile, of course -- an explicit simile. The difference between the two is pretty basic, no?

Mar. 23 2011 02:23 PM
Amy from New Brunswick NJ

What about the b-word, that also is applied to women.... but often cats and dogs are thought of as opposites.

Mar. 23 2011 01:54 PM
Richard Steinman

Subject: ailurophile

a cat fancier; a lover of cats
Greek ailouros cat

Mar. 23 2011 01:54 PM
Judith from Manhattan

ailurophile/ailurophobe see the latin name for the panda

Mar. 23 2011 01:53 PM
Susan from NJ

"Cabinet" is a Rhode Island word for Milk shake. They also say "Grinder" for sub (sandwich).

Mar. 23 2011 01:53 PM
Ethan Duff from New York, NY

I wonder if "Cat's Cradle" refers to a cat's interest in sleeping in warm places and taking ownership of objects, i.e. the baby's cradle is now the cat's cradle.

Mar. 23 2011 01:53 PM

How do you go about determining definitvely the origin of phrases. eg: raining cats and dogs..

Mar. 23 2011 01:52 PM

My New Oxford English Dictionary defines ailurophobia as an "extreme or irrational fear of cats" but does not mention ailurophile. The origin is said to be Greek - ailuros "cat".

Mar. 23 2011 01:51 PM
Chris McBurney from manhattan

a little gruesome.. but how bout "you can't swing a dead cat in here with out hitting someone"

Mar. 23 2011 01:51 PM

Someone just called in about ailurophile:
Greek ailouros cat
First Known Use: 1927

Mar. 23 2011 01:50 PM
Alvin from Manhattan

Re regional food names (sprinkles vs. jimmies, etc.), there was a famous rock and roll instrumental with a title based on a regional food name: "Green Onions" by Booker T and the MGs. "Green onions" is a regional name for scallions.

Mar. 23 2011 01:49 PM

noun \ī-ˈlu̇r-ə-ˌfī(-ə)l, ā-\
Definition of AILUROPHILE
: a cat fancier : a lover of cats
Greek ailouros cat
First Known Use: 1927

Mar. 23 2011 01:48 PM
Dimitri Liakhovitski

Question for Patricia:
You wrote "Woe is I". Since then the number of people - including highly educated business executives - who say things like: "send an e-mail to John and I" or "organize a meeting for Mary and I" has sky-rocketed. Any thoughts why it has been happening?
Thank you!

Mar. 23 2011 01:47 PM
Steve from NYC - Manhattan

When do we curmudgeons give up on the inevitable evolution of the language and when do we continue to correct and grumble? The misuse o f Envy and Jealousy drives me nuts - and it's all over print and TV. Should I just let it go?

Mar. 23 2011 01:46 PM
Tim Driscoll from Sunnyside, Queens

"Not enough room to swing a cat."

Origin: British Navy --- Cat-O-Nine Tails --- Below decks--- Tight quarters.

Remember Churchill and the British Navy:
"Rum, sodomy and the lash.

Mar. 23 2011 01:45 PM

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The Lodown is a blog about everything brought to you by the staff of the Leonard Lopate Show (Leonard will even drop by from time to time)! We cover food, art, politics, history, science and much more -- literally everything from Picasso to pork pies. Tips and suggestions are welcome so please send us your thoughts, curiosities and intellectual detritus!

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