Let The Cat Out Of The Bag

Meaning:

When someone “lets the cat out of the bag,” they make a secret known.

Example: Rick bought a gift for his wife that he was supposed to keep under wraps until next week. However, he was so excited that he let the cat out of the bag early and told her all about it.

A similar phrase to this one is ‘to spill the beans.’ (e.g., Rick spilled the beans and told her everything.)

Synonyms / Related Phrases:
Spill the beans
The idiom let the cat out of the bag.

The Origin Of ‘Let The Cat Out Of The Bag’

The origin of the phrase let the cat out of the bag is not certain. However, there are theories about where it may have come from:

  1.  One theory has to do with merchants who were looking to make some coin by selling piglets. The young pigs that were sold were put into bags for the customers to carry home. However, the more devious merchants had other plans in mind—while the customers were distracted, perhaps as they looked away for only a moment, the piglet would be swapped out with a cat. The customer, being none the wiser, would later go home and, yes indeed, let the cat out of the bag. Thus, discovering the merchant’s ruse.

Could this be the origin of the phrase? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem likely. Why not? For one, what if the buyer immediately looked into the bag after the transaction? I mean, sure, I guess if the bag was tied at the top it would prevent that from happening. However, the merchant would then have to hope the cat doesn’t make any noise (which they tend to do if they’re in a confined space).

Moreover, even if the customer did go home, they would eventually open the bag and find a cat inside instead of a piglet. So wouldn’t they just go back to the merchant and complain? This sure would be a quick way for the merchant to ruin their reputation and business. This is why this particular theory sounds implausible to me.

2. The second theory has to do with a multi-tailed whip that was called a “cat o’ nine tails,” the shortened form being “the cat.” This whip was used for the physical punishment of sailors who broke certain rules (such as theft). Interestingly, “the cat” was kept in a bag, perhaps to keep the leather from drying out since they were out at sea. Thus, when the time came for a sailor to receive punishment, “the cat” was taken out of the bag. So is this where the phrase came from? Maybe, it certainly sounds more plausible than the first theory.

Anyways, those are the two theories pertaining to its origin. It’s said that the first use of this phrase with its “revealing a secret” meaning is from The London Magazine, January 1760. The idiom is indeed found in there:

“We could have wished that the strange genious, author of this piece, had not let the cat out of the bag; for it is such a mad, ranting, swearing, caterwauling pus*, that we fear no sober family will be troubled with her.”

This means that this idiom is at least over 250 years old.


Example Sentences

“This surprise party we’re throwing Jessica is going to be great!”

​”Oh, was this supposed to be a surprise? I may have accidentally let the cat out of the bag when I spoke to her earlier today.”


Note: This is a phrase related to animals. We have a list of cat sayings on here that you can check out if you want to see more like this one.