I would like to show you today some idioms. Last time, I talked about Spanish Idioms with Spanish Cities, but now I’m going to talk about idioms with one of my favorite animals: the cat.
Cats have been adored since ancient times; Egyptians and people from China and India loved him, and even some gods in the ancient Egypt were made up of cats, like Bastet, goddess of warfare in Lower Egypt.
Nowadays, some people all over the world, including Spain, think that black cats are a symbol of bad luck, as they are linked to witches and horror stories, like The Black Cat, by Edgar Allan Poe.
But this is not a blog about cats (I should reconsider to create one about animals, I think), so here we go with the cats’ expressions I collected in Spanish!
We use this expression when we mean that something is fishy.
For example: somebody you don’t get along with invites you to his birthday party, with an evil smile at his face; then you think “aquí hay gato encerrado”.
What’s the origin of this idiom? Well, we must go back to sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when it was typical to use the word “gato” referring to the rucksack where the money was kept. To avoid robberies, some people hid the sack behind the clothes, so the thieves created a code to express they found somebody with a hidden bag. This code was “gato encerrado” (enclosed cat).
- Llevarse como el perro y el gato
“To get along like dog and cat”. This one is very easy to guess, and it means to get like dogs and cats, that is, bad.
It has no other origin that the real relationship between dogs and cats in real life, although there are many homes where dogs and cats are best friends forever! But to understand this idiom, we must stick to the classic bad relation among these animals.
As an example, we can think about two siblings who fight every day, and I’m sure a Spanish mum would say “¡se llevan como el perro y el gato!”.
- Buscarle tres pies al gato
You literally look for three cat’s feet when you are complicating your life or looking for trouble.
For example, you saw somebody doing something wrong and you try that person to tell you by herself, but she starts giving you bad excuses. At the moment you get tired of those excuses, you say: “deja de buscarle tres pies al gato, te vi ayer”.
But, why three feet instead of five, which would be the logical? I mean, 99% of the cats have four feet, so it makes more sense looking for the fifth foot, which is an extra. Indeed, originally that was the expression: “buscarle cinco pies al gato”. Well, it is said that this is due to Miguel de Cervantes, the illustrious writer mostly known by his work Don Quijote de la Mancha, who is said that modified the expression to use it on his work. Some people say it was a mistake, some other people say he did it deliberately to add an irony note to the text. The only true fact is that the expression changed since then.
- Tener más vidas que un gato
Why do we say that somebody would have more lives than a cat? Nobody has more than one life, then, why? We must go back in time to understand this.
As I said before, cats were considered gods in the Ancient Egypt, but later on, Catholics prosecuted cats because they thought cats were a Devil’s symbol. As a result of this swinging of the cat’s superstitions, along with cats’ ability to came out unhurt of a high fall, the myth of cats’ resurrection was created. In Spain, we also say that cats’ have seven lives (“siete vidas tiene un gato”). Not five nor eight, but seven!
So, for example, we will say that somebody has “más vidas que un gato” when, after a car accident, the person is completely or almost uninjured. And it may even not be the first time!
- El gato escaldado, del agua fría huye
We use this expression to talk about somebody who runs away from a situation that once hurt him. Literally meaning “a scalded cat runs away from cold water”, it could be translated as “once bitten, twice shy”.
We don’t need to think too much about its origin, as it is an action-reaction fact: you trust in something, you get hurt, you don’t trust in that anymore. For example, a kid at school is told to go to the gym because a teacher wants to talk to him, but once there he finds the big guys who want to humiliate him. That kid will never trust those guys again, and even other boys who have something in common, so that kid will became the cat who runs away from cold water.
- De noche, todos los gatos son pardos
This expression would be literally translated as “at night, all cats are grey-brown”, but it basically means that everything looks the same in the dark.
It is used to talk about people who are about doing bad businesses, like committing a crime or cheating on someone, and they do it at night so they won’t be recognized by the victim.
For example, think about a couple with two kids. Everyone is supposed to be sleeping, but the dad wants to drink water, so he heads to the kitchen. But he sees a kid running to the bedroom and finds the evidence: a chocolate paper on the kitchen table! With sunlight, he might have known who was the kid who ate the chocolate, but as it was dark, he doesn’t know either it was one or the other boy. So, he will say to his wife “¡No lo vi! De noche, todos los gatos son pardos”.
This idiom has its origin in ancient times, when it was said that some innkeepers served cat meat instead of rabbit or mutton as offered. This was also said about people selling hare pies at the street markets. Customers complained about it because they were supposed to pay for hare or mutton meat, but they got cooked cat instead.
So, when we “give a cat instead of a hare”, we are conning somebody by giving a lower quality article than expected. For example, if you go to a second-hand shop to buy a new phone but don’t really know about the features that you need, the person in charge will try to convince you that the worst phone is the best one for you. Then you get home and you proudly show it to your brother, and he laughs at you because you got a really bad phone for an extremely high price, so he says to you “te han dado gato por liebre”.
Els Quatre Gats was a hostel located in Barcelona built by the end of the nineteenth century. It was usually frequented by some of the most important Modernism figures. Unfortunately, they used to be few people, so the place had to close seven years later.
But seven years were enough to settle down a new idiom in our language. As the place used to be almost empty, people associated the four cats to an empty place, and nowadays we say “hay cuatro gatos” when there is hardly anyone somewhere.
For example, you go to a pub that usually is full of people, but today you can see that is almost empty, so you say “hay cuatro gatos, vámonos de aquí”.
From gods to demons in different cultures, if we consider them a language resource, cats are so versatile! Of course, they are way much more than a resource; personally I love cats, but you can’t deny they give place to many issues in language and history!
I hope you liked it! If so, please share it and tell me if you know other idioms with cats, both in Spanish or your own language. 😊
¡Hasta la próxima!