cat-o’-nine-tails (1866-79) – photograph: National Maritime Museum
The noun cat-o’-nine-tails denotes a rope whip with nine knotted cords, formerly used, especially at sea, to flog offenders. This instrument of punishment was authorised in the British navy and army until 1881—cf. also to run the gauntlet.
The word 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.
The British doctor and slavery abolitionist Alexander Falconbridge (circa 1760-1792) gave a precise description of the cat-o’-nine-tails (abbreviated to cat) in An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (London, 1788); he wrote that a young seaman
on board one of the ships, was frequently beaten in a very severe manner, for very trifling faults. This was done sometimes with what is termed a cat, (an instrument of correction, which consists of a handle or stem, made of a rope three inches and a half in circumference, and about eighteen inches in length, at one end of which are fastened nine branches, or tails, composed of log line, with three or more knots upon each branch).
The British Critic (London) of January 1794 published a review of The Duties of a Regimental Surgeon Considered: With Observations on His General Qualifications; And Hints relative to a More Respectable Practice, and Better Regulation of that Department by Robert Hamilton; this review contains the following:
Occasional severity in the army is undoubtedly necessary for the sake of subordination, but that method should be adopted which, at the same time that it gives pain, is attended with least danger. The instrument with which the punishment is inflicted, is vulgarly called a Cat-o’ nine-tails, probably from the number of cords that were originally attached to one handle; at present the number is usually six. One hundred lashes given with this instrument, with regard to injury done to the skin and muscular fibres, is therefore equal to six hundred given with a single cord; but the degree of absolute pain is not in the same ratio, for a single cord would give nearly the same pain, and would be attended with less injury to the parts. We therefore do not hesitate to give our opinion, that the punishment ought to be inflicted with a single cord, and that no man should be sentenced to receive more stripes than there is a probability of his being able to bear at once.
It is therefore likely that the name cat-o’-nine-tails was originally one of grim humour, in reference to the nine knotted lashes inflicting parallel wounds similar to scratches made by a cat’s claws.
An alternative theory argues that, in cat-o’-nine-tails, cat means rope on the grounds that cat is used in nautical compounds, some of which designate ropes. For instance, in A sea grammar (London, 1627), John Smith (1580-1631), English soldier and colonial governor, wrote:
Cat harpings are small ropes runne in little blockes from one side of the ship to the other, neere the vpper decke to keepe the shrouds tight for the more safety of the mast from rowling.
– cat-fall, or cat-rope: the rope in the cat-tackle between the cat-block and the sheaves in the cat-head
– cat-tackle, or cat-purchase: the tackle to raise the anchor to the cat-head
– cat-block: a two- or three-fold block forming part of the cat-tackle
– cat-head: a beam projecting almost horizontally at each side of the bows of a ship, for raising the anchor from the surface of the water to the deck without touching the bows, and for carrying the anchor on its stock-end when suspended outside the ship’s side.
But this theory complicates needlessly an evident derivation: the use of the word tail in the name of the whip does indicate that cat refers to the animal.