What's the Origin of "Let the Cat out of the Bag"?

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The first documented use of the phrase in the sense of “revealing a secret" comes from a book review in a 1760 issue of The London Magazine, wherein the reviewer laments that, "We could have wished that the author had not let the cat out of the bag."

That, unfortunately, is about all we know for sure. There are two popularly cited origins for the phrase, but neither is very clearly recorded as leading to it.

The first origin story claims the phrase refers to the cat o’ nine tails, infamously used by the Royal Navy as an instrument of punishment aboard its ships. The whip’s nine knotted cords could scratch an undisciplined sailor’s back badly, hence its feline nickname. The bag comes into play because the “cat,” being made of leather, had to be kept in a sack to protect it from drying out in the salty sea air and keep it flexible. Removing a whip from a sack doesn’t immediately seem to have anything to do with revealing a secret (that the lash was on board the ship and would be readily used shouldn’t have been a secret to any sailor), but if you think of “letting the cat out of the bag” as a revelation that results in a punishment, it makes a little more sense.

Urban legend clearinghouse Snopes.com rejects this origin based on the idea that “let the cat out of the bag” is recorded before “cat o’ nine tails,” but the whip’s nickname shows up in print earlier than they claim: In a 1695 play called Love for Love by William Congreve, it is used in a very clear reference to a lashing at sea. The same thing can't be said about “let the cat out of the bag,” though, and there aren't any recorded uses of it in a nautical context.

Or Maybe It Relates to Livestock Fraud

The other explanation for the phrase is that it was born from a ridiculous bit of livestock fraud. Supposedly, merchants would sell customers live piglets and, after putting a pig in a sack for easier transport, would sometimes swap the pig for a cat when the customer looked away. The buyer wouldn’t discover they’d been cheated until they got home and literally let the cat out of the bag. There don't seem to be any recorded links between the phrase and livestock markets, or even much evidence that this sort of con was commomplace. (Pigs were bagged for sale, though, and Richard Hill's Common-place Book from 1530 offers some advice to merchants that led to another idiom: “When ye proffer the pigge open the poke.”)

There’s a certain implausibility to the trick, too. Piglets big enough to be taken to market differ in size and build from domestic cats. Consider also that cats meow, and don’t oink. We can’t imagine enough people would have picked up their purchase and thought, “this sack seems a little light, and isn’t making the right noise, but I guess everything is normal,” to make this ruse work often enough that an idiom came from it. The Spanish equivalent of the phrase—dar gato por liebre, or “giving a cat instead of a hare”—at least implies an origin with an animal that makes more sense. Rabbits meant to be eaten are usually sold already slaughtered and skinned, and are similar enough in size and appearance to cats in the same circumstances.

How Often Should You Poop?

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When it comes to No. 2, plenty of people aren’t really sure what’s normal. Are you supposed to go every day? What if you go 10 times a day? Is that a sign that you’re dying? What about once every three days? Short of asking everyone you know for their personal poop statistics, how do you know how often you’re supposed to hit the head?

Everyone’s system is a little different, and according to experts, regularity is more important than how often you do the deed. Though some lucky people might think of having a bowel movement as an integral part of their morning routine, most people don’t poop every day, as Lifehacker informs us. In fact, if you go anywhere between three times a day and three times a week, you’re within the normal range.

It’s when things change that you need to pay attention. If you typically go twice a day and you suddenly find yourself becoming a once-every-three-days person, something is wrong. The same thing goes if you normally go once every few days but suddenly start running to the toilet every day.

There are a number of factors that can influence how often you go, including your travel schedule, your medications, your exercise routine, your coffee habit, your stress levels, your hangover, and, of course, your diet. (You should be eating at least 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day, a goal that most Americans fall significantly short of.)

If you do experience a sudden change in how often you take a seat on the porcelain throne, you should probably see a doctor. It could be something serious, like celiac disease, cancer, or inflammatory bowel disease. Or perhaps you just need to eat a lot more kale. Only a doctor can tell you.

However, if you do have trouble going, please, don’t spend your whole day sitting on the toilet. It’s terrible for your butt. You shouldn’t spend more than 10 to 15 minutes on the toilet, as one expert told Men’s Health, or you’ll probably give yourself hemorrhoids.

But if you have a steady routine of pooping three times a day, by all means, keep doing what you’re doing. Just maybe get yourself a bidet.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Would Happen If a Plane Flew Too High?

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Tom Farrier:

People have done this, and they have died doing it. For example, in October 2004, the crew of Pinnacle Airlines 3701 [PDF]  was taking their aircraft from one airport to another without passengers—a so-called "repositioning" flight.

They were supposed to fly at 33,000 feet, but instead requested and climbed to 41,000 feet, which was the maximum altitude at which the aircraft was supposed to be able to be flown. Both engines failed, the crew couldn't get them restarted, and the aircraft crashed and was destroyed.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable causes of this accident were: (1) the pilots’ unprofessional behavior, deviation from standard operating procedures, and poor airmanship, which resulted in an in-flight emergency from which they were unable to recover, in part because of the pilots’ inadequate training; (2) the pilots’ failure to prepare for an emergency landing in a timely manner, including communicating with air traffic controllers immediately after the emergency about the loss of both engines and the availability of landing sites; and (3) the pilots’ improper management of the double engine failure checklist, which allowed the engine cores to stop rotating and resulted in the core lock engine condition.

Contributing to this accident were: (1) the core lock engine condition, which prevented at least one engine from being restarted, and (2) the airplane flight manuals that did not communicate to pilots the importance of maintaining a minimum airspeed to keep the engine cores rotating.

Accidents also happen when the "density altitude"—a combination of the temperature and atmospheric pressure at a given location—is too high. At high altitude on a hot day, some types of aircraft simply can't climb. They might get off the ground after attempting a takeoff, but then they can't gain altitude and they crash because they run out of room in front of them or because they try to turn back to the airport and stall the aircraft in doing so. An example of this scenario is described in WPR12LA283.

There's a helicopter version of this problem as well. Helicopter crews calculate the "power available" at a given pressure altitude and temperature, and then compare that to the "power required" under those same conditions. The latter are different for hovering "in ground effect" (IGE, with the benefit of a level surface against which their rotor system can push) and "out of ground effect" (OGE, where the rotor system supports the full weight of the aircraft).

It's kind of unnerving to take off from, say, a helipad on top of a building and go from hovering in ground effect and moving forward to suddenly find yourself in an OGE situation, not having enough power to keep hovering as you slide out over the edge of the roof. This is why helicopter pilots always will establish a positive rate of climb from such environments as quickly as possible—when you get moving forward at around 15 to 20 knots, the movement of air through the rotor system provides some extra ("translational") lift.

It also feels ugly to drop below that translational lift airspeed too high above the surface and abruptly be in a power deficit situation—maybe you have IGE power, but you don't have OGE power. In such cases, you may not have enough power to cushion your landing as you don't so much fly as plummet. (Any Monty Python fans?)

Finally, for some insight into the pure aerodynamics at play when airplanes fly too high, I'd recommend reading the responses to "What happens to aircraft that depart controlled flight at the coffin corner?"

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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