Cat got your tongue?

Cat, Chat

The English idiom “Has the cat got your tongue?” is used when someone remains silent in situations where they are expected to say something. It could be glossed as, “Why don’t you say anything? Your silence is suspicious.” Possible origins of this phrase are discussed on this page. The French equivalent of this idiom is “Tu as perdu ta langue ?” (Have you lost your tongue?”).

In French there is a similar idiom involving cats and tongues: donner sa langue au chat (to give one’s tongue to the cat), but this means to give up or stop guessing when you don’t know the answer to something, or don’t know what someone is asking of you.

Apparently this idiom developed from the phrase jeter sa langue au chien (to throw one’s tongue to the dog), which originated in an era when leftover food was thrown to the dogs, and meant that you no longer felt like finding an answer to a question, so you might as well throw it to the dogs. Over time the phrase became donner sa langue au chat, as cats were considered secret keepers, and you gave your tongue to the cat in the hope that it would be able to answer the question [source]. An equivalent idiom in English is “to throw in the towel” or “to throw in the sponge”, expressions which come from boxing.

Are there any similar idioms in other languages?

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This entry was posted in English, French, Idioms, Language.

15 Responses to Cat got your tongue?

  1. 杏桃来春 says:

    ハンガリー語: Elvitte a cica a nyelved?  

  2. Christopher Miller says:

    I recognise “cica”!

    One of my vets (from Hungary) always called my cats “cicurka” when she was taking care of them.

  3. beatrix says:

    Portuguese: O gato comeu sua língua? Literally, “The cat ate your tongue?”

  4. Jerry says:

    In Dutch is as boring as in French: “heb je je tong verloren?”, literally translated as “have you lost your tongue?”. No cats…

    The Dutch equivalent for “to throw in the towel” is “de handdoek in de ring gooien”. Literally, this is “to throw the towel in the ring”. Probably the same source as in English: it’s the way to say you give up a ring fight.

    I can’t think of any expressions in Dutch relating to cats.

    “Cats and dogs” in Dutch don’t involve any animals either, though a rude expression involves the female sexual organ and pears (the fruit). Never understood where that expression came from.

  5. LAttilaD says:

    Note that Hungarian cica is a diminutive name, corresponding to English kitty. It’s used both for young cats and by children or speaking to children. The age neutral term is macska. The phrase „Elvitte a cica a nyelved?” is almost entirely used when asking kids. Asking an adult so makes everybody to smile.
    I don’t know what is the case with the English equivalent. Is it used for kids only, or may adults be asked so, too?

  6. Andrew says:

    Ahhhh, so it actually means, or originally meant, that you knew the answer but had to decided to “give it to the cat” (keep it for yourself) whereas today the modern meaning of it is simply that you can’t think of anything to say, that is you don’t have the answer in the first place, as opposed to having the answer but having “given it to the cat” (you don’t want to say, but you could). Interesting.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  7. b_jonas says:

    I’ve never heared “elvitte a cica a nyelved”, but I think it might indeed exist: Karinthy Frigyes mentions a similar phrase in the short writing “A külvilág (Kisfiam jegyzeteiből)” in the collection “Én és Énke”.

  8. Yenlit says:

    Welsh has: ‘gollwng y gath o’r cwd’ for ‘let the cat out of the bag’ ie. let slip a secret.
    Where English has ‘sleeping dogs’ (let sleeping dogs lie) Welsh has ‘cadw cathod mewn cwd’ (keep cats in a bag.)
    ‘Like grease-lightning’ is ‘fel cath i gythraul’ (like a cat to a devil) and ‘to buy a pig in a poke’ is ‘prynu cath mewn cwd’ (buy a cat in a bag).
    Now maybe one of the native Hungarians here can explain this idiom: ‘vigyen el a rezfaszú bagoly!’?

  9. LAttilaD says:

    Vigyen el a rézfaszú bagoly?! Interesting. „May the owl with a copper fuck take you away.” That must be a one-time invention of somebody who won’t reuse it as it is, next time he’ll create another one.

  10. Yenlit says:

    LattilaD:
    Yes, ‘may the copper-dicked owl take you!’ – I was told the ‘rézfaszú bagoly’ was a kinda Hungarian bogeyman to scare children and if you google image the term you can see mock-up pictures of the owl? When I’ve asked my Hungarian friends to explain what the ‘rézfaszú bagoly’ is all about and why an owl would have copper coloured genitals nobody knew why and some had new heard of the term – strange?

  11. Yenlit says:

    Typo: ‘new’ should be ‘never’ oops.

  12. LAttilaD says:

    Well. Really. I always liked to learn new things. Thanks for letting me learn one. It must exist really, since it’s even included in the article _Bogeyman_ on English Wikipedia. After all, I’m in doubt how was it being used to scare children. Fasz = fuck is the very word adults in a traditional mood won’t use with children present. My fault, maybe.

  13. Riccardo says:

    In Italian we have: “Il gatto ti ha mangiato la lingua?” (Has the cat eaten your tongue?) and “Gettare la spugna” (To throw the sponge), which are basically the same both in meaning and form of their English equivalents.

  14. Jose says:

    Same in Spanish: “¿te ha comido la lengua el gato?”. Usually said to shy children :-)

  15. In French of course there is also the phrase ‘jeter le éponge’ to throw in the sponge similar to throw in the towel.