Let the Cat Out of the Bag Origin

What does to let the cat out of the bag mean? How is it used in a sentence? When was it first used?

Dictionary, History, Symbolism

Let the cat out of the bag, also stated as let the cat out of the box, is a phrase meaning to reveal facts that were once hidden. It also means revealing a conspiracy to its target. In this article, we will discover let the cat out of the bag origin, meaning and usage.

1. Let the cat out of the bag Meaning

The colloquialism to let the cat out of the bag or box means to reveal a secret that is not to be revealed. It usually refers to revealing conspiracies, hidden truths, or unveiling a plot-twist in a book or movie. Letting a cat out of the bag also refers to a blabbermouth carelessly revealing secrets which they were not supposed to reveal. There is explosiveness and confidence in the revelation of something hidden – a salty and tickling nature, and a huge element of shock and surprise when the truth comes to light. Hence, this phrase expresses the turmoil unleashed by a frightened cat trapped in the bag. (See Goodbye Etymology)

2. Let the cat out of the bag Origin

Will Rogers, the famous humorist once claimed that letting the cat out of the bag is much easier than putting it back in. Meaning, the truth once unveiled cannot be swept under the carpet. But what is let the cat out of the bag origin? According to sources, the phrase was coined during the 18th century and gained much popularity through literature. However, there is no solid evidence to prove this claim. Later on, we will discuss two theories that are believed to have birthed this idiom. (See Why Do Cats Love Catnip?)

3. Let the cat out of the bag Usage

Let’s read some sentences framed using this idiom:

  • Don’t let the cat out of the bag!
  • Some fool let the cat out of the bag, we’re doomed.
  • They let the big cat out of the bag at the end of the movie.
  • I would never let the cat out of the box, I swear on my life.
  • He never watches what he says! The cat’s out of the bag.

4. Earliest Usage of this Phrase

The very first usage of this odd phrase was recorded in a book review published in the 1970 issue of The London Magazine. The reviewer of the book bewailed that they wished the author wouldn’t have let the cat out of the bag and ruin the suspense. The exact origin, however, is yet to be discovered. (See Kudos Origin and Meaning)

5. Cat o’nine Tails Theory

This theory suggests that the phrase refers to a whipping device called the Cat O’nine Tails, which was infamously used as a punishment instrument by The Royal Navy. The whip had nine cords knotted together which were used to punish the back of a disobedient sailor. The wounds inflicted by this whip resembled the scratches caused by a cat’s nails on the skin. Hence, getting the nickname cat o’nine tails. This tail is said to be related to the phrase as the cat, which is the whip, was stored in a sack. This is so because the whip was made of leather and seawater or air could easily damage it. (See Do Cats Really Have Nine Lives?)

6. Livestock Fraud Theory

The livestock fraud theory is an amusing one. It is believed that back in the day, merchants would sell live piglets and put them in a sack before handing them out to the customer. The fraud comes in when the customer looks away, as this is when the merchant would replace the piglet with a cat. The unfortunate buyer wouldn’t realize that they have been cheated until they, literally, let the cat out of the bag.

Hence, this theory is perceived as more believable as it makes sense that letting the cat out of the bag meant revealing the truth. Supposedly, Johannes Agricola referred to this scam for the phrase let cat out of the bag in a letter to Martin Luther King in 1530. (See What is the Peanut Gallery?)

Hope you understood let the cat out of the bag origin, its meaning, and how to use it in a sentence. Stay tuned for more such fun facts!

About the author
Alex Williams is a PhD student in urban studies and planning. He is broadly interested in the historical geographies of capital, the geopolitical economy of urbanization, environmental and imperial history, critical urban theory, and spatial dialectics.

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