meaning and origin of ‘to see which way the cat jumps’



Tip-Cat in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy, and Pretty Miss Polly (1787 edition)



The phrase to see which way the cat jumps means to see what direction events are taking before committing oneself.

One of its earliest instances is from The Berkshire Chronicle of 28th May 1825; an article titled Lord Liverpool and the Roman Catholic claims quoted a speech made on 21st May by the Irish Catholic barrister Daniel O’Connell at the British Catholic meeting:

“The Bishop of Chester’s is not the only miraculous conversion. He knows, in the vulgar phrase, how the cat jumps.”

The idiom was therefore already well established at that time.

Here, cat does not refer to the animal but to a short piece of wood tapering at both ends, used in tip-cat (also cat), a game in which the wooden tip-cat, or cat, is struck or ‘tipped’ at one end with a cat-stick so as to spring up, and then knocked to a distance by the same player.

The following, dating back to 1626, is from the accounts of the churchwardens of Windsor (fines were enforced for non-attendance at church):

Rec. [= Received] of Robert Sea, Rich. Nethercliff H. Asson Isaac Walkers, brother Corinsh his sonne, and Robᵗ Maunde for playing at Catt in the Parke medow in service tyme. 5s. 6d.

A character in Women beware Women (first published in 1657), by the English playwright Thomas Middleton (1580-1627), confirms that this game was absorbing (coads is an interjection and gardianer means guardian):

I think of no body, when I am in play. I am so earnest. Coads-me, my Gardianer! Prethee lay up my Cat and Cat-stick safe.

In A Short Relation of a Long Journey Made Round or Ovall By Encompassing the Principalitie of Wales, from London, through and by the Counties of Middlesex and Buckingham, Berks, Oxonia, Warwick, Stafford, Chester, Flint, Denbigh, Anglesey, Carnarvon, Merioneth, Cardigan, Pembroke, Caermarden, Glamorgan, Monmouth, Glocester, &c., completed in 1653, the English poet John Taylor (1578-1653) wrote about the ordinary Welsh people’s lack of strict observation of the Sabbath on Sundays (these isolated Welsh communities were not yet fully Christianised or under strict Christian influence, hence these communal gatherings, occupied with ancestral games and pastimes in the absence of available churches and clergymen):

(1859 edition)
There is no such zeale in many places and parishes in Wales; for they have neither service, prayer, sermon, minister, or preacher, nor any church door opened at all, so that people do exercise and edifie in the church yard, at the lawfull and laudable games of trap, catt, stool-ball, racket, etc., on Sundayes.

The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (1838 edition), by Joseph Strutt (1749-1802) and William Hone (1780-1842), contains a description of the game:

Tip-cat, or perhaps more properly the game of cat, is a rustic pastime well known in many parts of the kingdom, and is always played with a cudgel or bludgeon resembling that used for trap-ball. Its denomination is derived from a piece of wood called a cat, of about six inches in length, and an inch and a half or two inches in diameter, diminished from the middle, to both the ends, in the shape of a double cone; by this curious contrivance the places of the trap and of the ball are at once supplied; for when the cat is laid upon the ground, the player with his cudgel strikes it smartly, it matters not at which end, and it will rise with a rotatory motion, high enough for him to beat it away as it falls, in the same manner as he would a ball.
There are various methods of playing the game of cat, but I shall only notice the two that follow. The first is exceedingly simple, and consists in making a large ring upon the ground, in the middle of which the striker takes his station; his business is to beat the cat over the ring. If he fails in so doing he is out, and another player takes his place; if he is successful he judges with his eye the distance the cat is driven from the centre of the ring, and calls for a number at pleasure to be scored towards his game: if the number demanded be found upon measurement to exceed the same number of lengths of the bludgeon, he is out; on the contrary, if it does not, he obtains his call. The second method is to make four, six, or eight holes in the ground, in a circular direction, and as nearly as possible at equal distances from each other, and at every hole is placed a player with his bludgeon: one of the opposite party who stand in the field, tosses the cat to the batsman who is nearest him, and every time the cat is struck the players are obliged to change their situations, and run once from one hole to another in succession; if the cat be driven to any great distance they continue to run in the same order, and claim a score towards their game every time they quit one hole and run to another; but if the cat be stopped by their opponents and thrown across between any two of the holes before the player who has quitted one of them can reach the other, he is out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.