Idiom: Let the cat out of the bagOED definition: to reveal a secret carelessly or by mistakeExample: I wasn’t going to tell anyone about the pregnancy, but Clara has let the cat out of the bag.
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There are two common historical explanations for this idiom. The first, refers to a time when piglets were commonly sold in bags on market stalls. In those days, vendors were known for tricking their customers by substituting a cat for the pig and trying to sell it at the same price. Therefore, if you ‘let the cat out of the bag’, you uncovered the fraud and avoided being tricked into buying a cat. This practise was documented as early as 1530.
The alternative theory argues that the ‘cat’ refers to the ‘cat o’nine tails’, which was a type of whip that was used to flog badly behaved sailors. The ‘nine tails’ part of the name is believed to refer to the fact that on the implement there were three large strands of rope, which were used to lash the victim. Each of these large strands was made up of three smaller strands that were usually twisted together. Many suggest that the ‘cat’ part of the name is because of the scratches that would be left as a result on the victims back.
Of the two different explanations, the first is more plausible although there is no documented evidence of this. However, several versions of the phrase exist in other languages, for example, Dutch ‘Een kat in de zak kopen’ and German ‘Die Katze im Sack kaufen’. Both of these roughly translate as ‘to buy a cat in a bag’, giving credence to the first theory.
The first in print use of this idiom was in 1760, in an addition of The London Magazine. Other literary references were made to the saying in the 1760s and 1770s, however, most of the time it appeared in quotation marks, suggesting that it was a newly coined phrase and wasn’t commonly understood at the time.