Skinning the Cat
Posted: 10 May 2007 08:17 PM   [ Ignore ]
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“There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

The usual suspects of word/phrase origins websites say it refers to a catfish. Is this true? It’s hard to explain to non-English speakers without seeming cruel and hard-hearted. In the old days boys used to do unspeakable things to cats whenever they could as a matter of principle, to work out their societal frustrations, but no one talks about such practices now. Couldn’t find it on the Big List.

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Posted: 10 May 2007 10:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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OED on “skin the cat” -"more than one way to”:

c. In phrases denoting excessive meanness or desire for gain, esp. to skin a flint.

1694 MOTTEUX Rabelais V. vii, May I be broil’d like a Red~herring, if I don’t think they are wise enough to skin a Flint. 1834 MARRYAT P. Simple (1863) 195 Report says, that she would skin a flint if she could. 1851 MAYHEW Lond. Labour I. 134 They’d skin a flea for his hide and tallow. 1859 LEVER D. Dunn iv, I was..brought up amongst fellows would skin a cat. 1884 [see FLINT n. 4].

Michael Quinion, as usual, has a good article on it:

The version more than one way to skin a cat seems to have nothing directly to do with the American English term to skin a cat, which is to perform a type of gymnastic exercise, involving passing the feet and legs between the arms while hanging by the hands from a horizontal bar. However, its name may have been suggested by the action of turning an animal’s skin inside out as part of the process of removing it from the body.

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Posted: 10 May 2007 11:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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The websites foolscap refers to, that would have you believe that “skin a cat” refers to a catfish, usually include some such remark as “Why on earth would anybody want to skin a real cat?”. People don’t realise, or just don’t like to believe, that there was a time when cat fur was much used for clothing and dead cats were routinely skinned, so routinely that there was a proverb “what can you have of a cat but her skin?” meaning, roughly, “you can’t get more, or different, value out of something than it intrinsically has”.

Here’s a nursery rhyme first printed as a broadside ballad in 1764 (from The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes). The relevance to this thread is in the very last line so you don’t need to read the whole thing unless you feel like it!

There was a little man,
And he wooed a little maid,
And he said, “Little maid, will you wed, wed, wed?
I have little more to say,
Than will you, yea or nay?
For the least said is soonest mended, ded, ded.”

Then the little maid she said,
Little sir, you’ve little said,
To induce a little maid for to wed, wed, wed,
You must say a little more,
And produce a little ore,
Ere I to the church will be led, led, led.

Then the little man replied,
If you’ll be my little bride,
I will raise my love notes a little higher, higher, higher,
Though I little love to prate,
Yet you’ll find my heart is great,
With the little God of Love all on fire, fire, fire

The little maid replied,
“If I should be your bride,
Pray, what must we have for to eat, eat, eat?
Will the flames that you’re so rich in
Make a fire in the kitchen,
And the little God of Love turn the spit, spit, spit?”

Then the little man he sighed,
And some say a little cried,
And his little heart was big with sorrow, sorrow, sorrow,
I’ll be your little slave,
And if the little that I have,
Be too little, little dear, I will borrow, borrow, borrow.

Then the little man so gent,
Made the little maid relent,
And set her little soul a-thinking, king, king,
Though his little was but small,
Yet she had his little all,
And could have of a cat but her skin, skin, skin.

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Posted: 11 May 2007 05:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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It’s hard to explain to non-English speakers without seeming cruel and hard-hearted.

Non-English speakers (I presume) who have in their non-English language no proverbs or sayings reflecting anything but sweetness and light?  Non-English speakers who have never before been exposed to the un-nice aspects of the world?  Who are these non-English speakers?  I want to go learn their language and live amongst them!

(And yes, obviously the phrase means exactly what it says, and yes, the world can be a hard place, especially for small animals.)

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Posted: 11 May 2007 08:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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It’s hard to explain to non-English speakers without seeming cruel and hard-hearted.

But what exactly is cruel about skinning a cat (provided of course it’s already dead)? In merrie olde England, in days gone by, if the household mouser died you’d sell it to the skinner for a couple of pence. That’s unsentimental, to be sure, but hardly cruel. What else would you expect, anyway? 18th-century peasants using pet cemeteries?

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Posted: 11 May 2007 06:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Well, I admit to some hyperbole. My interlocutor was indeed a cat lover, but she was not particularly shocked. Apparently they have much worse and more offending sayings where she comes from.

It’s a question of pragmatics (getting a cat’s skin for resale) over sheer exuberant abandonment towards destruction and annihilation.

[ Edited: 12 May 2007 02:50 AM by foolscap ]
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