“A Man and His Cat are Soon Parted” – Phrases and Etymology are Fascinating

During the Easter weekend celebrations at my parent’s place, my partner was given a beer and instructed to walk the family cat so that she could enjoy the sunshine. It wasn’t long after this that the cat (an aging Siamese with a superiority complex) decided that she wanted to go back inside. And so it went that a man and his cat were soon parted; she proceeded to stoutly ignore my partner throughout the rest of the dinner. I was much more the target of her affections – particularly as I shared with her tender pieces of turkey dinner under the table.

Will and Bamboo.
Will walks the cat.
Bamboo awaits her lavish dinner.
The cat later awaits her lavish dinner.

The phrase used in the title here – “A Man and His Cat are Soon Parted” – makes no specific reference. I just wrote it up on the fly. I thought it sounded poetical, and that it might allude to some obscure child’s fairytale (were I to write such a tale, I would make it the more mature version and use the word ‘puss’ rather than ‘cat’). The basis of the phrase is, of course,  “a fool and his money are soon parted“.

Phrases are used in everyday conversation and yet are often misunderstood, misused, or misquoted. Sometimes using these phrases in new ways can lead to new understands and interpretations; as with individual words, the meaning of phrases change over time.

The phrase “a fool and his money are soon parted” was first used by Thomas Tusser, a 16th Century British farmer, horticulturalist, chorister, musician and writer; it implied that wise financial stewardship was the only way to achieve financial stability (Nickerson, 2009). It has since been reused in other contexts and referenced by authors (e.g. John Rothchild), lyricists (Paul McCartney’s Come and Get It song), and even crossword puzzle writers (Nickerson, 2009). As we all know, everything’s a remix and combinatorial creativity is the secret behind the world’s creative greats, so it’s no surprise that long-ago phrases like this one show up in our everyday media and popular culture.

Many common phrases have lost their original meanings and taken on new connotations. For example, “buckle down to work” used to refer to a knight buckling down all of his armor before a battle; “kick the bucket” originated in the slaughterhouses where freshly-killed hogs would be hung up by a pulley with a weight called a bucket (Conradt, 2009). With the advance of progress and concomitant changes in human lifestyles, we no longer use these phrases to describe these situations (though they do remain in our modern parlance, handed down through literature and word of mouth).

Similarly, individual words can take on new meanings. Researchers have rigorously evaluated semantic changes of words over time and how these changes relate to certain world events (see for example, Wijaya & Yeniterzi, 2011). Tools like the Google Ngram Viewer allow the average person to chart frequency of word usage  in literature between the 1800s and 2000s. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the “explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago” (Harper, 2014).

I find phrases and etymology change over time to be quite a fascinating subject. Not only do they act as little artifacts of our culture, they can also be quickly reimagined and shared as memes (see my article on the ‘doge’ for a specific example). Perhaps I’ll write a little story about a man and his cat, and this will become a commonly-used phrase with moral implications; you never know, it could happen!

Do you have any phrases or words that you’re particularly curious about? Comment below and I will investigate them for you!

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