What would the language do without cats and dogs? They slink and growl through many of our best metaphors, from the cool promiscuity of the alley cat to the rarefied status of the top dog.
"One of the most talked-about ads on television doesn't mention hockey, beavers or even beer," The Globe's John Heinzl wrote recently in his Report on Business marketing column. "It depicts a bunch of grimy cowboys romancing that time-honoured vocation of the Wild West: herding, uh, cats."
"Herding cats" suggests a near-impossible task, a corralling of animals whose chief motive in life is not to be corralled, an exasperating logistical exercise from which one takes early retirement with a lifetime supply of medication. Clearly, it's a perfect metaphor for management.
The earliest available reference is in a 1985 article by Brad Lemley in The Washington Post, about a software-design group headed by David Stoffel. "At Group L, Stoffel oversees six first-rate programmers, a managerial challenge roughly comparable to herding cats." The phrase then apparently goes into hibernation, only to pop up several times in 1991, the year it first appeared in The Globe and Mail. Val Ross wrote that when Sam Bronfman commissioned Stephen Leacock to write a history of Canada, Mr. Bronfman "swiftly discovered that dealing with writers can be like herding cats."
That same year, on being relieved of a job leading Republicans in California, Ross Johnson called in every metaphor that owed him a favour. "It's a crummy job," he told The Los Angeles Times, "[on a par with]walking through the minefield, juggling hand grenades and herding cats." Now that would make the fur fly.
When cats aren't being rounded up, they are being given a hard time. The notion of "a cat on a hot tin roof" to describe discomfort and skittishness dates back to the turn of the century in the United States, and echoes the British variation "a cat on hot bricks," first recorded in 1880. And whoever first used the proverb "there's more than one way to skin a cat" to indicate several methods of achieving a goal couldn't have been much of a feline-fancier, except in the way Cruella De Vil admired Dalmatians.
(Should anyone wish to apologize to cats for that slight, Alexandra Sellers's 1998 book How to Speak Cat provides the appropriate phrase: "Ma'ruh maowpirp row," roughly translated as "I'm only human."
The idea that cats have nine lives, a reference point for humans who cheat the Reaper, originates in their habit of landing without injury in situations that by rights should have killed them. The notion dates back to the Sanskrit Fables of Pilpay, in which (according to the 1570 English translation) a cat survived a knife attack "as it has been the providence of Nature to give this creature nine lives instead of one." In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, when Tybalt asks Mercutio what he would have of him, Mercutio replies, "Good King of Cats, nothing but one of your nine lives."
Cats are yoked to dogs in the expression "it's raining cats and dogs," but heaven only knows why our ancestors considered falling animals to be an evocative metaphor for a downpour. One explanation is that in the days of rotten sanitation, the rains would sweep the corpses of dogs and cats through the gutters. Another is that the words are a corruption of the French cadadoupe, "waterfall." A third is that in northern mythology, dogs and cats symbolized wind and rain respectively. Since Robert Hendrickson says people have similarly insisted that it's raining pitchforks, darning needles and chicken coops, perhaps it's best we just walk away whistling.
When it's not raining, dogs are yoked to horses. The phrase "dog and pony show" describes a bare-bones business presentation or demonstration of goods, the idea being that the circus is too cheap to hire acrobats, lions and clowns, so all you get are a couple of predictable animals who go through their paces, doggedly. Still, anything's better than herding cats. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org