Let the cat out of the bag is a common saying that means to make a secret known.
Example: Rick was planning to surprise his wife with a trip to Japan, a place that she’s always wanted to visit. He was supposed to keep this a secret until next week, but he let the cat out of the bag early because he was so excited and wanted her to know.
Synonyms: spill the beans (e.g., He spilled the beans and told her everything.)
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:
- 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 were tied at the top it would prevent that from happening. However, the merchant would then have to hope that the cat doesn’t make any meowing noises, which it probably would do if it’s stuck in a bag.
On top of that, even if the customer did go home, they would eventually open the bag and find a cat in there instead of a piglet. So wouldn’t they just go back to the merchant and complain? Surely this would be a quick way for the merchant to ruin their reputation and business. Thus, I find this theory to be implausible.
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, I believe). Interestingly, “the cat” was kept in a bag. Why? Probably to help protect it from the sea air, since you typically don’t want to get wet. Anyways, it was kept in a bag, so when the time came for a sailor to receive punishment, “the cat” was taken out of the bag, hence the phrase.
So… is this where the phrase came from? Maybe, it sounds more plausible than the first theory, I’ll give it that.
Anyways, those are the two theories pertaining to its origin. As for how old this phrase is, it’s earliest appearance (that I know of) with its “revealing a secret” meaning is from The London Magazine, January 1760:
“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 the idiom is at least over 250 years old.
“This surprise party we’re throwing Jessica is going to be great!”
”Oh, was this supposed to be a surprise? I might have 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.