Most of us know a tabby cat is either a female house cat or one with a striped or brindled coat regardless of its sex. But where does the word tabby come from? It has an unusual etymology, coming ultimately from Arabic and the history of Islam, and over the years it has been applied to things other than house cats, such as being used to refer to older, unmarried women.

The English word comes from the French tabis, in Old French atabis. This in turn comes from the medieval Latin attabi, which was taken from the Arabic ‘attābī, which is a reference to al-’Attābīya, a neighborhood of Baghdad. This quarter of the city is named for Attab ibn Asid, the first governor of Mecca following its conquest by Muhammad. Tabby, and its ancestors in these other languages, originally referred to silk taffeta, which was woven in the Baghdad neighborhood. The cloth was originally striped, but later came to be used for cloth of a single color that was waved or watered.

Tabby appears in English as early as 1638 referring to the cloth. It appears in an inventory of the possessions of Thomas Verney:

Now for some necessaries concerning myself. As first, for one good cloth sute, and one taby or good stuff sute.

The connection to cats is in place by 1665, where it appears in Thomas Herbert’s Some Years Travels Into Divers Parts of Africa and Asia the Great:

Cats be in more request with them than dogs; very large they are and tabby-coloured, streakt like those of Cyprus.

By 1695, the unmodified tabby was being applied to cats. From William Congreve’s play Love for Love of that year:

Look to it, nurse; I can bring witness that you have a great unnatural teat under your left arm, and he another; and that you suckle a young devil, in the shape of a tabby cat, by turns; I can.

The sense of a female cat was in place by 1826. From James Townley’s play High Life Below Stairs of that year:

Why, Mrs. Kitty, your cat has kittened—two Toms and two Tabbies!

It’s clear from this citation that the sense of tabby as a female cat developed in contrast to the male tomcat. It probably is a conflation of the name Tabitha, the word’s association with cats, and its sense of a spinster.

The word’s first association with human females is in Samuel Richardson’s 1748 novel Clarissa:

With horrible grave faces was I received. The two Antiques only bowed their tabby heads; making longer faces than ordinary.

Here tabby is referring to various shades of gray hair on the two spinster’s heads. But within a few years, the word was directly referring to elderly spinsters. From George Colman’s 1761 play The Jealous Wife:

‘Pon honour, I am not sorry for the coming-in of these old tabbies, and am much obliged to her ladyship for leaving us such an agreeable tête-à-tête.

This sense of a spinster, as the quote from Richardson indicates, got its start from gray hair, but the association of old women with cats, from the stereotype of spinsters keeping cats as pets and disparagingly in comparing their disposition to the animals’, certainly influenced the development of this sense.

American Heritage Dictionary, fifth edition, 2019, s. v. tabby.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. tabby, n. and adj.

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