‘to set the cat among the pigeons’: meaning and origin

The colloquial phrase to set, or to put, etc., the cat among the pigeons means to do or say something which causes trouble, controversy or upset.

The English translator and antiquary John Stevens (c.1662-1726) recorded a similar Spanish phrase in A New Spanish and English dictionary: Collected from the Best Spanish Authors, Both Ancient and Modern. Containing Several Thousand Words more than any other Dictionary; With their Etymology; Their Proper, Figurative, Burlesque and Cant Significations; The Common Terms of Arts and Sciences; The Proper Names of Men; The Surnames of Families, and an Account of them; The Titles of the Nobility of Spain; Together with its Geography, and that of the West Indies; With the Names of such Provinces, Towns and Rivers in other Parts which differ in Spanish from the English. Also above Two Thousand Proverbs Literally Translated, with their Equivalents, where any could be found; and many Thousands of Phrases and difficult Expressions Explain’d. All the Words throughout the Dictionary Accented, for the ascertaining of the Pronunciation. To which is added, A Copious English and Spanish Dictionary Likewise A Spanish Grammar, more Complete and Easy than any hitherto extant: Wherein The Spanish Dialogues that have been Publish’d are put into Proper English. (London: George Sawbridge, 1706):

Palomár, a Dove-house.
Prov. Anda la gáta en el palomár. The Cat is in the Dove-house. They say, when a Man is got among the Women.

Perhaps significantly, the first three occurrences that I have found of the phrase to set, or to put, etc., the cat among the pigeons are from Yorkshire, in northern England—specifically from The Northern Star, and Leeds General Advertiser (Leeds, Yorkshire, England), a Chartist [note 1] newspaper.

The following are the texts containing these three occurrences—the phrase is in quotation marks, which indicates that it was already in common usage:

1-: From The Northern Star, and Leeds General Advertiser (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) of Saturday 13th February 1841:

THE FOX AND GOOSE CLUB.

On Monday evening, was held the first anniversary meeting of the members of the Leeds Fox and Goose Club, on which occasion the “birds and beasts” assembled in the Saloon of the Music Hall, in Albion-street, their numbers probably amounting to three hundred.
[…]
Mr. Goose Martin, in an address of an hour’s duration, […] contended that the present House of Commons did not represent the wishes of the geese, but was a tool in the hands of the aristocratic foxes. The suffrage must be extended, but what that extension should be, could only be ascertained by knowing how far it would be conducive to the public good. He held up to admiration the example of Republican America, and drew a forcible contrast between the institutions of that country and those of our own, adding that though under present circumstances, he did not consider it politic to advocate republican doctrines, their tribes not having become sufficiently enlightened to receive them; yet he was convinced that to this it must come at last, and the sooner the better. [The geese hereupon flew up in extacies [sic], while the foxes exchanged suspicious looks.] Order being restored, and the speaker having retired to his seat, Mr. Fox Goodman again rose, and said he could not permit it to go forth that the Leeds Royal Loyal Fox and Goose Club advocated such principles as those promulgated by the last speaker—it should not emanate from that assembly, that they were the advocates of Republicanism; because, were such doctrines to prevail, the foxes would lose their power, and it was one of the decrees of Providence that as both foxes and geese had always been in the land, so they should always continue. The geese did not like this; and Martin again stood forward. It was evident that he had “put the cat among the pigeons,” and by way of satisfying the foxes, and calming their fears for the safety and preservation of their order, he said he had qualified his observations, and he again repeated that in the present state of the public mind he did not think it advisable to advocate, but merely to enunciate his opinions.

2-: From The Northern Star, and Leeds General Advertiser (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) of Saturday 24th June 1843:

“THE DEVIL AMONG THE TAILORS.”
JEW v. GENTILE.

On Saturday last, Mr. J. C. Pirani, manager at Mr. Hyam’s tailoring establishment, in Briggate, (along with his solicitor, Mr. J. E. Upton), attended at the Court House, before Messrs. Grace and Nell, to support an information which had been laid by him against Benjamin Spencer, better known as “Big Ben,” for having posted on the walls of the town certain placards emanating from the society of journeymen tailors, and which were said to contain malicious and libellous charges against Mr. Pirani and his employer, and which placards were without a printer’s name, “contrary to the statute,” &c.
[…]
The case having been called on, “Big Ben” placed himself behind, and in close contiguity to, his solicitor, Mr. Naylor […].
[…]
Mr. Naylor rose and said he did not intend further to deny the charge of having posted the bills; what he contended for was, that the justices had no jurisdiction in the matter; he thought his Learned Friend was not aware that the statute under which he had chosen to proceed had been subsequently entirely repealed. Mr. Naylor then quoted from the Act 2 and 3 Victoria, c. 12, the preamble of which recites c. 79 in the 39th George III., and which declares the same to be repealed. Section 4 of the same Act (2 and 3 Vic.) also enacts that no actions for penalties shall be commenced, except in the name of the Attorney or Solicitor General in England, or the Queen’s Advocate in Scotland. This statute, it would be observed, repealed the clause in the 39 Geo. III., and, therefore, he contended, his friend was out of Court.
Mr. Nell.—(to the Magistrates’ Clerk)—Is that so, Mr. Barr?
Mr. Barr.—It appears to be so, sir, from what Mr. Naylor has read. I was not aware of it. Allow me to look at the Act. Mr. Barr then referred to the two statutes, and after a careful perusal, said to the Bench—There is no doubt, sir, that this latter statute not only repeals the former, on which the information has been laid, but repeals also your jurisdiction.
The Bench.—Then we have no further power in the matter.
Mr. Barr.—No, sir.
Here was a “Cat among the pigeons” at once. Mr. Pirani advanced to his solicitor “looking unutterable things,” and some minutes were spent by them in comparing the statutes. At length, however, they arose, and taking their papers and books, hastily retired.

3-: From a letter “to the people”, by William Hill (1806-1867), Chartist, Swedenborgian pastor and editor of The Northern Star, and Leeds General Advertiser, published in The Northern Star, and Leeds General Advertiser (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) of Saturday 16th September 1843:

My Dear Friends,—In my short letter to you from Glasgow, I mentioned some things in which it was my purpose thereafter to speak with you more at large. I told you that I had then lying by me an article from the Times newspaper, which afforded arguments for the Organization of the people more cogent and conclusive than perhaps any that I have yet seen submitted to you from any quarter. Here it is. It is taken from the leading columns of the Times newspaper of the 4th of August. Its immediate point of reference is to the “Rebecca” movement in Wales [note 2]; while its reasoning shews that the enemy fear nothing so much as the cool prudence, the intelligent inquiry, and peaceful, quiet, “systematized,” organized onward movement of the public mind. Just in proportion to the amount of bluster and noise, and violence, and physical destructiveness which they evince, are the “agitators” of the public voted harmless—(and often indeed useful)—by the factions. But how? let the Times speak:—
[quotation from The Times, in which the phrase to put the cat amongst the pigeons does not occur.]
[…]
[…] The Times knows perfectly that if once the people be “driven into Chartism,” they will soon make the discovery that it is a matter of no consequence at all to them whether the farmers pay much or little of rent, and tithe, and rates, and tolls. They will then look to higher sources of universal mischief, and to the appropriation of the rents, taxes, rates, tithes, and tolls so paid and levied. Hence the politic fear of the Times that the people should “begin to reason,” and to “appeal to broad principles and deep foundations.” The Times knows perfectly that whenever the people do this, generally, the “foundations” of class rule, and class robbery consequent on class rule, must speedily give way. Hence his fear of the “embassies from Political Unions, Reform Associations, and Operative Clubs,” and of the deputies from Birmingham and Manchester. “Philosophizing,” “reasoning,” “systematizing,” “appealing to broad principles and deep foundations,” talking of “the rights of man,” and the “social compact,” plays the very deuce with factions. It “puts the cat amongst the pigeons” with a vengeance! And hence the difference in tone assumed by the Times, and other newspapers in reference to the riots, arsons, and destructions of property in Wales, and the peaceful movement of the Chartists, who were induced to join the strike movement last year.

Notes:

1 Chartism was a British parliamentary reform movement of 1837-48, the principles of which were set out in The People’s Charter, a manifesto published on Tuesday 8th May 1838, and called for universal suffrage for men, equal electoral districts, voting by secret ballot, abolition of property qualifications for MPs and annual general elections.

2 The Rebecca movement was a movement whose supporters attacked and demolished turnpike toll gates, chiefly in south and west Wales, from 1839 to 1843, in protest at high tolls. Although mostly male, the protesters frequently disguised themselves in women’s clothing, blackening their faces, and sometimes also wearing horsehair wigs or beards. The name Rebecca probably alludes to the following passage from the Book of Genesis, 24:60:

—King James Bible (1611):
And they blessed Rebekah, and said vnto her, Thou art our sister, bee thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possesse the gate of those which hate them.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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.