Thursday, February 6, 2014

Dead Cat on a Line



After I posted items about dead cats I received an email from Byter Tim:

Otto, 
Have you ever heard the phrase...."There's a dead cat on the line"? I tried to find it in Wikipedia, but to no avail. Just curious, I enjoy your Bytes daily, thanks for sending. 
Tim

I hadn’t heard the expression before, perhaps readers have, but my researches indicate the following:

The expression means that there is something wrong or that there is something suspicious happening.

According to a 1982 article by William Safire in the Palm Beach Post, which can be read at:
there are a number of competing explanations as to the origin of the phrase.

His comments, as set out in the above article, describes research by the Smithsonian into the origin of that particular expression:

Interviewers compiling the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) asked hundreds of interviewees the question “When you think that someone is trying to deceive you, or that something is going on behind your back, you say ‘There’s . . . ?’” Twenty one respondents answered “Dead cat on a line.”

Lexicographic Irregulars provided DARE with the following speculative explanations of the phrase:

  • third party eavesdropping on a party line;
  • a ‘line dance’ where a stranger did not know the local steps and was therefore described as ‘dead’;
  • an abandoned Caterpillar tractor that had been used to lay a gas pipeline;

Safire’s request for assistance from readers simply presented more (but logical) possible derivations:

  • In Louisiana it was common to fish for catfish by leaving a line in the water with various other lines and hooks coming off it. This was known as a trot line and the fisherman would check the trot line each day. If a neighbour came along and found a dead catfish on the line in circumstances suggesting that the line had not been checked, it could give rise to a suspicion that something was wrong with the person who owned the line.
  • Difficulties in getting telegrams through resulted in a repair man going out to check the wires. He reported back that a cat had gone up one of the poles and died on the line, hence the inability in getting the telegrams through.
  • Back in days that were less humane, unwanted litters of kittens were often tied into a bag and drowned. Anglers who thought that they had a large fish hooked were often disappointed to find that they had a dead cat on the line instead.

There you have it, Tim, you pays your money, you takes your pick.

(Look up an earlier Bytes for the origin of that last expression:

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