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9 Mar. What are the origins of the English expression “cat got your tongue?”

This is an English expression which was used most frequently in the 1960’s and was directed at children in the majority of cases. It is still used but with much less frequency.


The expression is used to ask someone why they are being so quiet. It is often used when a question has been asked to someone and they are not providing an answer or when someone is uncharacteristically quiet. In the latter case it is often preceded by the expression “what’s the matter.”


The first instance of the expression in written language dates to the year 1881 in Volume 53 of a Us publication, Ballou’s Monthly Magazine. It reads “has the cat got your tongue, as the children say?” It is suggested that the phrase dates back much further than this but as it is used mainly in spoken language there are no records to confirm this.

The origins of this expression have not been confirmed although it is suggested by many that it is linked with the custom in the Middle East which was to punish those who lied by cutting their tongue out and then feed them to the king’s cats.


An example of this expression in use can be found in a quote from the 2007 film Live Free or Die Hard. In this film the character Thomas Gabriel asks McClane “what’s the matter- cat got your tongue?”

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