Idiom of the Week: To buy a cat in a sack

MOLLY KIEFER/PIONEER LOG

By MCKENNA TIEGLAND///Senior Staff Writer

We have all probably heard about the Cat in the Hat, but are we equally familiar with the cat in the sack? Well, Americans might not be, but Germans are. They have an idiom, die katze im sack kaufen, which literally translates into “To buy a cat in a sack” in English. This has nothing to do with a fantastical, red-and-white-striped behatted creature, and rather means to buy something without first inspecting it. A fair warning. Nothing is worse than purchasing an item, only to take it home and realize that it is defective. But why a cat? And in a sack? In fact, why do we keep putting cats inside of things?

American English likes to use the phrase “let the cat out of the bag,” and in order to release it, it must have first been captured. While this idiom basically means to let slip a piece of information, which is fairly disparate from making an impulsive purchase, there is a very weak undercurrent connecting the two: both relate to a state of lacking information. But, you see, I’m almost not as interested in this sliver of analysis as I am by the copious amount of cat idioms across many languages.

In fact, this German one, to buy a cat in a sack, also exists in Latvian, Polish, Norwegian, and Swedish. The Japanese language has a marked plethora of cat idioms all on its own, and then in American English, “cat got your tongue” immediately comes to mind, as do the phrases “cats have nine lives,” and “black cat cross your path,” as well at the idea that cats always land on their feet. Our culture is so inundated with cats and I couldn’t even begin to fathom as to why. And the thing is, it’s not just our culture or even the present day.

It’s as though our modern Internet culture began thousands and thousands of years ago in the Egyptian desert. While cats are not the only animal that has been adopted into cross-cultural significance, they are bizarrely prevalent in such scenarios and still across time. I know I’m not original here when I draw this connection, but the fact that it can even be made in the first place. It’s just odd. About as odd as an idiom itself.

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