Cat & Pigeons 

Recently, I was giving a talk about my book The Newcomer’s Dictionary at a local library. In conversation with one of the audience members, I discussed a potential issue that would cause some concerns for one particular group and said, “This will put the cat among the pigeons.”  

A women in the audience was a German immigrant and she looked puzzled and asked what it meant? I burst out laughing because it was not a phrase I often use. I consider it more of a comic metaphor in the style of the classic cartoons where an animated cat Tom and mouse Jerry are locked into a hilarious and bitter rivalry. But then I became curious about it and did some research. To my surprise, I discovered it has unsavory origins.

Just for clarity, the actual phrase can be either ” to put the cat among the pigeons or to set the cat among the pigeons. It means to  cause a controversy by doing or saying something.”

Apparently, the phrase was most likely coined in colonial India. The phrase was derived from a blood sport. A wild cat was put in a pen with pigeons and bets were placed on how many birds the cat could kill with a paw-swipe. It is always astonishing to me the way that humans use their imaginations to create special opportunities to harm animals for entertainment. Perhaps, all of those British denizens were bored and looking for a diversion since fox hunting, cock fighting, and bear baiting weren’t on the schedule.

Where I first heard the phrase is lost in the mists of time, but it does boggle the mind to think how far it has traveled from its early usage and country of origin. And to think that a brutal blood sport made such a powerful impact that a phrase describing it entered popular culture and our everyday language. And then somehow the phrase resurfaces in rural Australia in 2024 via an American immigrant giving a talk. What are the chances?

Picture of Joyce Agee

Joyce Agee

Writing can magically transport us anywhere. My blog looks at the experiences of being an expat newcomer; life in a small town in regional Australia, and what the world looks like living ‘down under’.

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