General

Cat in the custard cup

Cat in the custard cup

Cat in the custard cup

A cat in the custard cup is a phrase used to describe an incident or event that is unlikely to happen and yet happens more often than would be expected. It is often used metaphorically, for instance in a book, to describe a character who is more trouble than they are worth.

Although a cat in the custard cup is similar to a "pussycat", the phrase cat in the custard cup is much older and more common than the latter. The phrase "a cat in a strange place" is another popular variation and often misquoted with this meaning.

"Cat in the cream" is an alternative phrase for cat in the custard cup and is often used as a humorous euphemism for the act of sexual intercourse.

Origins and etymology

It is thought that the phrase was derived from a nursery rhyme. This has been suggested by etymologist Michael Quinion, who writes that the expression derives from "a nursery rhyme about a woman who gets the cream in a custard cup", with the expression being that of the proverb. This version of the expression is now widely quoted, and it is not always entirely clear whether it is a paraphrase of a rhyme or whether it is the rhyme itself. It is also likely that the rhyme and the expression "cat in the cream" are older than the nursery rhyme, dating from the early 19th century.

"Cat in the cream"

The rhyme that the expression was originally a quotation from is sometimes called Cat in the cream and is generally attributed to John Arden. It is as follows:

Cat in the cream,

Cat in the milk,

Cat in the water,

Cat in the fire,

I would like to know,

If cats can’t swim.

Variations of this rhyme are common, and the rhyme is not always attributed to Arden.

The exact wording of the phrase is thought to vary. That shown in the rhyme is the one that Quinion suggests is a paraphrase, but there are also other variants in circulation.

Cat in the cream,

Cat in the milk,

Cat in the water,

Cat in the fire,

I would like to know,

If cats can't swim.

Consequences

The cat in the cream may be a symbol of promiscuity and the phrase may have been derived as a metaphor for sexual activity. It may also be seen as a satirical reflection of the fact that, on a practical level, it is more difficult for cats to swim than for humans. This has led to the expression being applied to women in general, as well as being used to suggest promiscuity.

There is also a link between the expression and the title Cat in the Hat from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The two are thought to have been created by Mark Twn at different times. Arden may have been influenced by this title.

That the cat in the fire is female may also be significant, and the author may be suggesting that he can only imagine a woman in a highly sexualised position.

Some of the other more obvious meanings of the phrase may be suggested by the fact that cream is the food that most frequently contns cats.

References

External links

The Cat in the Fire (1908) at archive.org

Category:English nursery rhymes

Category:English folk songs

Category:Traditional children's songs

Category:Songs about cats

Category:English-language poems

Category:1908 poems

Category:Roud Folk Song Index songs

Category:Songwriter unknown

Category:English folk music

Category:Year of song unknown

Category:American poems

Category:English poems

Category:Songs about sexuality

Category:Roud Folk Song Index number-one singles

Category:1908 songs


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