Katy, bar the door

The expression Katy, bar the door means to watch out or serves as a warning of impending disaster. It dates to at least 1902 when it appears in Hugh McHugh’s (George V. Hobart’s) It’s Up to You:

It was “Katie, bar the door” with her.

But who was Katy (or Katie) and why was she locking the door?

We don’t know for certain, but the expression is probably a reference to an incident in Scottish history. On 20 February 1437, King James I of Scotland was assassinated while staying at the Dominican chapterhouse in Perth and the Katy in question was one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting who tried to save him.

Her full name was Catherine Douglas, popularly known as Kate Barlass. A band of murderers, led by nobleman Robert Graeme, had entered the chapterhouse in search of the king. The king’s chamberlain, Robert Stuart, was in on the plot and had removed the locks and bolts securing the door of king’s chamber. In an attempt to prevent the murderers from entering the room, Catherine used her arm in place of a bolt. The murderers broke the door, and her arm, and succeeded in killing the king. Her descendants to this day bear a broken arm on their family crest and keep the name Barlass.

In 1881, the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti published a popular poem called The King’s Tragedy that told the story of Catherine Douglas. Rossetti’s poem does not use the modern phrase, but it undoubtedly helped bring the story to the modern consciousness:

Then the Queen cried, “Catherine, keep the door,
And I to this will suffice!”
At her word I rose all dazed to my feet,
And my heart was fire and ice.

[. . .]

And now the rush was heard on the stair,
And "God, what help?" was our cry.
And was I frenzied or was I bold?
I looked at each empty stanchion-hold,
And no bar but my arm had I!

Like iron felt my arm, as through
The staple I made it pass:—
Alack! it was flesh and bone—no more!
‘Twas Catherine Douglas sprang to the door,
But I fell back Kate Barlass

The chief argument against this explanation is that the modern phrase appears to be American in origin. But Rossetti’s poem was published in the US and it is not inconceivable that an Americanism could be rooted in a Scottish folk-tale.

(Sources: Historical Dictionary of American Slang; Rossettiarchive.org)

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