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That's how the cookie ... ah, you know. (Greg Kuchik / Photodisc)
That's how the cookie ... ah, you know. (Greg Kuchik / Photodisc)

Warren Clements

How do some expressions get so mangled? Add to ...

Last week’s discussion of “green behind the ears,” a careless melding of green and wet behind the ears, prompted thoughts of other mix-and-match expressions.

Sometimes the corruptions are deliberate. “Seeing is believing” is regularly transformed into “seeing is deceiving.” But sometimes it’s hard to tell. Victor Schiro, mayor of New Orleans from 1961 to 1970, was given to such utterances as “Don’t believe any false rumours unless you hear them from me.” He is also remembered for the phrases “That’s the way the cookie bounces” and “That’s the way the ball crumbles.”

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Looking for a needle in a haystack, a difficult task, is often rephrased as looking for a needle in a needle stack. Trouble is, nobody can agree on whether that job is difficult (looking for a particular needle) or easy (looking for any needle).

Peter Cochrane, in a blog on silicon.com in 2009, wrote, “As the Web has grown we have migrated from searching for a ‘needle in a haystack’ (easy) to looking for a ‘needle in a needle stack’ (hard).” But in 2010, two civil-rights organizations were quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying it was easy to find infringements of rights at Los Angeles City College. “Finding a First Amendment violation at LACC is like looking for a needle in a needle stack.”

To confuse matters, the Campbelltown-Macarthur Advertiser in Australia carried this sentence last May: “I feel sorry for Smiths trying to research their family tree – not so much needles in a haystack, more like finding a piece of hay in a needle stack.”

One lasting liberty involves William Congreve’s 1697 line in The Mourning Bride that “music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak.” In 1792, James Bramston wrote of music soothing “the savage beast.”

Both expressions are still in use. The Vancouver Sun wrote last September that “music has charms to soothe the savage breast of someone trying to sort out the sequence of things,” while the Vancouver Province wrote last August that Iran had disingenuously offered to send human-rights observers to a riot-torn London “to help soothe the savage beast that is the oppressed British teenager.”

“To put the cat among the pigeons” means to create a stir, to introduce a disruptive or galvanizing element. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the phrase to 1841, although there is a 1706 reference to “the cat is in the Dove-house” (“when a Man is got among the Women”).

Occasionally, I come across a variation on the phrase: to put the cat among the penguins. Whether it began as a mistake or as a humorous play on words, I do not know, although I am inclined to suspect humour.

A 2002 article on silicon.com said, “That’ll put the cat among the penguins. Microsoft has stunned its archrival in the Linux camp [an open-source operating system]with news it will be exhibiting at LinuxWorld Expo, set to be held in San Francisco this August.” The allusion was to cartoon penguins used as Linux icons.

But did the expression start as a reference to Linux, or has it led an unrelated parallel life? Last fall, Britain’s Daily Telegraph carried an interview with rugby veterans Kenny Logan, a former Scottish international, and Josh Lewsey, a retired English star. After the Irish upset the favoured Aussies in early round play, Logan said it was tough to predict the winner of the Rugby World Cup (New Zealand won). “Look at Ireland and Australia – that put a real cat among the penguins.”

A startled Lewsey asked, “A cat among the penguins?”

Logan replied, “My cousin used to say that. I don’t know.”

I don’t know either, and I am certainly not encouraging anyone to put a cat among birds of any stripe. I’m just curious about how such corruptions catch on. Coincidentally, a book by poet Kit Wright called Cat Among the Pigeons was published in 1989 – by Penguin Books.

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