to look like something the cat has brought in

 

Of American-English origin, the phrase to look, or to feellike something the cat has brought in means to look, or to feelexhausted or bedraggled.

The earliest instances of the form, if not of the phrase, that I have found are in, and as the title of, a story published in The Perrysburg Journal (Perrysburg, Ohio) of 2nd February 1877 (and in Harper’s Bazaar (New York) the following day). Since something the cat brought in has a literal meaning in this story, it is difficult to ascertain whether the anonymous author punned on the phrase or whether, on the contrary, the phrase did not exist at that time and the use of the form was fortuitous. Ptolemy Lolliver suspects his lover, Essie, of having gifted Arthur Godfrey with one of the gloves that he, Lolliver, had given to her (Joe is Essie’s brother):

“Good by [sic], Essie,” said Ptolemy, the obstinate wretch. And as he turned to leave the room, carrying his head very high, he stumbled over Snowball, Essie’s great white cat, and her especial pet, that was coming quietly in with a mouse—no, not a mouse—mice are not of a dark, indescribable shade—but some small object dangling from her mouth.
“O sis!” yelled Joe, falling flat on the floor in his eagerness to snatch the prize.
“What, Joe, what is it?” cried Essie, and down came the apron, leaving the wonderful long lashes glittering with tears.
Something the cat brought in,” he shouted. “Hurrah!” And there, soiled and wet by the snow in which it had lain all night, was the missing glove.

The second earliest instance is from The Coconino Sun (Flagstaff, Arizona) of 9th October 1908:

The way Cameron is making the democrats sit up and take notice is splendid to behold. The general verdict now is that he will carry all the northern counties and make the big majorities Smith used to get south look like something the cat brought in.

The earliest use of the verb drag instead of bring that I have found is from The Junction City Union (Junction City, Kansas) of 30th June 1888:

Two days last week and Monday and Tuesday of this week we have been afflicted with the presence in this city of two catchpenny, rag-tag-and-bob-tail snide tent show combinations, which reminded us of something the cats dragged in. They were composed of a lot of down-in-the-heel nigger-singers and circus men, but they drew suckers just as naturally as a dog draws flies. The fellow who said the fools were all dead either lied or overlooked a tent full of 44-calibre chumps, roped in at 10 and 25 cents a head.

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