The idiom “let the cat out of the bag” means to reveal a secret, or to make something known that was previously unknown. It is often used in a negative context, to suggest that someone has made a mistake by revealing something that should have been kept secret.
Origin of Let the Cat Out of the Bag
The origin of the idiom “let the cat out of the bag” is unclear. One possible explanation is that it comes from a practice in the middle ages of using cats as bait to catch rats. A cat would be released from a bag into a barn or other building where rats were a problem.
Another possible explanation for the origin of the idiom is that it comes from a game that was popular in the 16th century. In this game, a cat would be placed in a bag, and the bag would be passed around a group of people. The person holding the bag when it was opened would be the winner. This game could be seen as a metaphor for revealing a secret, as the person who opens the bag is the one who reveals the secret to the group.
There are two other commonly cited origins. The first is that it refers to a scam where a piglet would be swapped for a cat in a bag at the market. If the cat were to be let out of the bag, the buyer would be able to see that they had been tricked and avoid buying a “pig in a poke” (a poke is a type of bag). This type of fraud has been known for centuries, and the phrase “pig in a poke” was first recorded in 1530.
One more theory is that the “cat” in the phrase refers to a cat o’ nine tails, a type of whip used to flog sailors. This theory is also plausible, as the cat o’ nine tails was widely used in the navy and was first mentioned in print in the 16th century. The name “cat o’ nine tails” comes from the fact that the whip is made of nine knotted cords, which are said to resemble the claws of a cat.
Of the last two theories, the “pig in a poke” origin is more likely. There is no direct evidence to link “letting the cat out of the bag” to the selling of livestock, but the phrase exists in similar forms in other languages, such as Dutch (“Een kat in de zak kopen”) and German (“Die Katze im Sack kaufen”), which both mean “to buy a cat in a bag.” The cat o’ nine tails theory is less likely, as it does not explain the meaning of the phrase “disclose a secret.”
The Idiom Let the Cat Out of the Bag in Print
In a letter to Martin Luther on 4th May, 1530 Johannes Agricola referred to the phrase “let the cat out of the bag” as referenced by Lyndal Roper in his 2016 biography of Martin Luther.
The phrase appears in a 1760 edition of The London Magazine: “We could have wished that the author… had not let the cat out of the bag.”
Let the Cat Out of the Bag in popular culture
The idiom is frequently used in popular culture. It has appeared in films, magazines, music, video and board games, comics, and paintings and graphic novels.
In “Time” magazine, a headline from 1969 reads, “The Cat Is Out of the Bag: Man Has Landed on the Moon.” This headline announces the news that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had become the first humans to land on the moon. The news was a major event, and it was a secret that had been anticipated for several years.
In the comic strip “Garfield,” Garfield often uses the phrase “Let the cat out of the bag.” This is usually in the context of Garfield revealing something that he should have kept secret.
In the painting “The Cat Out of the Bag,” by William Hogarth, a cat is seen escaping from a bag. The painting is a satire of the British political scene in the 18th century.
Some Sentences Using Let the Cat Out of the Bag
- “I can’t believe you let the cat out of the bag! Now everyone knows!”
- “I’m so sorry, I let the cat out of the bag. I didn’t mean to tell anyone.”
- “The cat is out of the bag, and there’s no going back.”
- “Once the cat is out of the bag, it’s hard to put it back in.”
- “I need to be careful not to let the cat out of the bag