poster for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), an American film directed by Richard Brooks, based on the play by Tennessee Williams
An earlier form of the phrase was recorded by the English naturalist and theologian John Ray (1627–1705) in A Collection of English Proverbs (2nd edition – 1678):
To go like a cat upon a hot bake stone.
(The word bakestone, also spelt backstone, denotes a flat stone or slate on which cakes are baked in the oven.)
This earlier form of the phrase was still in use in the late 19th century. The following is from an article title Helps, published in The Nottinghamshire Guardian of 25th April 1879
I came off the celery quarter the other day with a load of Old England on my boots. There was no scraper near. I did not bless its absence, you may be sure. I had to tread for about a hundred yards sharply and gently, “like a cat on a hot bakestone,” as they say in Lancashire, before I could get rid of it.
The variant with backstone is found in The Sporting Magazine or Monthly Calendar, of the Transactions of the Turf, the Chase and every other Diversion Interesting to the Man of Pleasure, Enterprise & Spirit (London) of April 1820, in an article titled A new system of shoeing horses:
The earliest instance of a cat on hot bricks that I have found is from Passages from the Diary of the late Dolly Duster, published in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country (London) of November 1838; at the conclusion of a violent domestic row during which Mrs.—— smashed pieces of furniture, Mr.——
something after the fashion of a cat on hot bricks picked his way as well as he could towards the door.
The earliest use of the phrase itself that I have found is from the Cambridge Chronicle and Journal of 26th March 1842. At the Cambridgeshire Lent Assizes, John Poulton, a veterinary surgeon, declared:
The horse which is the subject of this action […] was so lame that he went dotting along on three legs, like a cat on hot bricks — (loud laughter.)
(The “loud laughter” seems to indicate that the phrase was already well established at that time.)
The earliest instance of the American-English phrase that I have found is from Troop Number 13 Wins Big Battle: Boy Scouts of the City Collect Ten Tons of Paper and are Still Busy, published in the Daily Gazette-Times (Corvallis, Oregon) of 6th June 1921:
All day long Scout Executive Cornwell was kept busy as a cat on a hot tin roof weighing out bundles of paper which had been collected by the indefatigable scouts.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is well known as the title of a play, first performed in 1955, by the American author Tennessee Williams (Thomas Lanier Williams – 1911-83). There are several allusions to the phrase in the dialogue; for example:
– Margaret: Y’know what I feel like, Brick?
I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof!
– Brick: Then jump off the roof, jump off it, cats can jump off roofs and land on their four feet uninjured!
– Margaret: Oh, yes!
– Brick: Do it!—fo’ God’s sake, do it…
– Margaret: Do what?
– Brick: Take a lover!
– Margaret: I can’t see a man but you! Even with my eyes closed, I just see you! Why don’t you get ugly, Brick, why don’t you please get fat or ugly or something so I could stand it?
– Brick: Maggie, I wouldn’t divorce you for being unfaithful or anything else. Don’t you know that? Hell. I’d be relieved to know that you’d found yourself a lover.
– Margaret: Well, I’m taking no chances. No, I’d rather stay on this hot tin roof.
– Brick: A hot tin roof’s ’n uncomfo’table place t’ stay on…
The French equivalent of these phrases is être sur des charbons ardents, literally to be on blazing coals, with reference to a medieval ordeal, that is, a test of guilt or innocence by subjection of the accused to severe pain, survival of which was taken as divine proof of innocence.