Q. Once hairy scenter did transgress,
Whose dame, both powerful and fierce,
Tho’ hairy scenter took delight
To do the thing both fair and right,
Upon a Sabbath day.
A. An old Woman whipping her Cat for Catching Mice on a Sunday.
from The True Trial of Understanding: or Wit Newly Reviv’d being a Book of Riddles Adorned with Variety of Pictures, in Chap-books of the eighteenth century (London, 1882), edited by John Ashton (1834-1911)
The phrase no room to swing a cat means hardly any room at all; it is used to describe a very confined space.
It is first recorded in the theological and medical treatise Medela pestilentiae wherein is contained several theological queries concerning the plague, with approved antidotes, signes and symptoms : also an exact method for curing that epidemicial distemper, humbly presented to the Right Honourable and Right Worshipful the lord mayor and sheriffs of the city of London (London, 1665), by Richard Kephale, a dissenting minister. The author showed the poor as especially liable to plague, their living conditions and the nature of the disease seeming to be symbiotically connected. He gave an account of a poor family dying alone:
At this present, most of those houses which are infected, are the habitations of poverty, in some obscure close place in the Suburbs; as towards St. Giles’s, &c. One house I know more especially by Cursitors-Alley, where the Man, his Wife and Childe liv’d in a Room that look’d more like, for bigness, a great Chest then any thing else: They had not space enough (according to the vulgar saying) to swing a Cat in; so hot by reason of the closeness, and so nastily kept besides, that it even took away a mans breath to put his head but within the doors.
The phrase, therefore, was already well established when Kephale was writing.
But this seems unlikely because the attestations of both the phrase and cat-o’-nine-tails indicate that the former predates the latter, which is first recorded in Love for love (London, 1695), a comedy written by the English poet and playwright William Congreve (1670-1729) and first performed in 1695. Ben, a young man “half home-bred, and half-Sea-bred”, is speaking to Miss Prue, “a silly, awkard [sic], Country Girl”:
Look you Young Woman, You may learn to give good words however. I spoke you fair d’ee see, and civil.—As for your Love or your liking, I don’t value it of a Rope’s end;—And may-hap I like you as little as you do me:—What I said was in Obedience to Father; Gad I fear a Whipping no more than you do. But I tell you one thing, if you shou’d give such Language at Sea, you’d have a Cat o’ Nine-tails laid cross your Shoulders.
Additionally, flogging would never have taken place in a cabin because the crew would have been assembled on deck to witness the punishment.
The phrase, therefore, might have originated in an actual cruel game consisting in swinging a cat by its tail. Allusions to other types of cat mistreatment exist. For example, in Much Ado About Nothing (circa 1599), by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Benedick confirms his resolves of not yielding to love by this protestation:
(¹ Adam Bell: a semi-legendary English outlaw similar to Robin Hood)
In The Plays of William Shakespeare (London, 1773), the English Shakespearian commentator George Steevens (1736-1800) wrote the following about Benedick’s remark:
In some counties of England, a cat was formerly closed up with a quantity of soot in a wooden bottle, (such as that in which shepherds carry their liquor) and was suspended on a line. He who beat out the bottom as he ran under it, and was nimble enough to escape its contents, was regarded as the hero of this inhuman diversion.
Likewise, to draw through the water with a cat, also to whip the cat, referred to a practical joke described by the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91) in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London, 1785):
Cat whipping, or whipping the cat, a trick often practised on ignorant country fellows, vain of their strength; by laying a wager with them, that they may be pulled through a pond by a cat; the bet being made, a rope is fixed round the waist of the party to be catted, and the end thrown across the pond, to which the cat is also fastened by a packthread, and three or four sturdy fellows are appointed to lead and whip the cat, these on a signal given, seize the end of the cord, and pretending to whip the cat, haul the astonished booby through the water.
The English poet and playwright Benjamin ‘Ben’ Jonson (1572-1637) had already evoked this trick in the comedy Bartholmew fayre (London, 1631):
We ha’ bin but a day and a halfe in towne, Gentlemen, ’tis true, and yester day i’the afternoone, we walk’d London, to shew the City to the Gentlewoman, he shall marry, Mistresse Grace; but, afore I will endure such another halfe day, with him, I’ll be drawne with a good Gib-cat², through the great pond at home.
(² The term gib-cat, from the abbreviation of Gilbert, denoted a male cat.)