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A reference in the Arkansas Times to a place being so small “there wasn’t room to swing a cat” has prompted a question about the origin of the old phrase.
The Word Detective says there are two theories. One is that the “cat” in this case is the “cat o’ nine tails,” a nine-thonged whip once used to discipline troublesome sailors. The welts it left on the subject’s back looked like giant cat scratches. These whippings usually took place on the open deck, because — according to the theory — below deck there wasn’t enough room to swing a cat.
“The other, less cat-friendly theory is that the phrase refers to literally swinging a cat around by its tail,” The Word Detective writes. “This version seems to have quite a bit more evidence in its favor, the phrase having come into use in the mid-17th century and being used with clear reference to actual cats ever since, including in Charles Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield.’ ”
That leaves unexplained the reason why a person would swing a cat. To bash its brains out? For the sheer enjoyment some people derive from being cruel to animals? (The Arkansas Farm Bureau makes sure those people are protected in this state.)
Keith Garrison writes, “Seems to me that it’s wrong to use both of’ and ’s, as in ‘He was a friend of Sam’s.’ Isn’t the ’s unnecessary? I always want to ask ‘Friend of Sam’s what?’ Sam’s brother, Sam’s dog, Sam’s girl?”
Some authorities agree that the double possessive is redundant and should be avoided. But there are at least as many on the other side of the question. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage says “This age-old idiom has appeared consistently since the days of Middle English. And it is widely approved … ‘that boy of Henry’s,’ ‘friends of my father’s,’ ‘hobbies of Jack’s.’ ”
It may seem illogical, but logic doesn’t always carry the day in questions of usage.
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