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by Peter Moskos

June 21, 2011

"Not enough room to swing a cat"

I just received an email with a subject line that baffled me: "Enough room to swing a cat." I've actually heard that absurd expression, which as far as I knew, came (at least in print) from Mark Twain. I was introduced to the phrase by a Russian translator in Moscow circa 1991 who liked to show off his learned "colloquial" English skills. Once, standing in cramped quarters, he proudly said, "There is not enough room to swing a cat."

He was baffled that we had no clue what he was talking about. Ever since, I have chuckled at the image of a class of English-learning Russian students who repeat, in unison, and with thick Russian accents: "Not enough room to swing a cat."

Well Peter Dodenhoff, a colleague at John Jay College, was nice enough to school me (schooling is, after all, what what we professors like to do):
In the days of Rule Britannia, as I suspect you’re familiar, discipline was maintained on board by the use of the cat o’ nine tails. When floggings were called for, they were carried out on deck, for two reasons: This way they would be public events that served as a warning to others, and also the cramped spaces below deck did not provide “enough room to swing a cat.” That cat, of course, was the cat o’ nine tails.

Cool stuff, eh?
That is cool stuff. And no, I never put two and two together to realize the link between the expression and flogging. I always pictured a real cat, which makes the expression all the more bizarre, especially when said with a thick Russian accent.

I became aware of the the naval history of flogging only in response to my article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (which was kind of my book's public "coming out"). So it didn't make it into my book, which is a shame, as it would have fit in perfectly.

The Navy also liked flogging because it didn't take an essential seaman out of commission by throwing him in the brig. If you weren't needed, you wouldn't have been on the ship in the first place! I like to think there is a good analogy here vis-à-vis all of us and why we shouldn't throw people in society's brig.

1 comment:

Map Monkey said...

Very good! And there is another commonly-used expression: "rule-of-thumb," which has come to mean the application of a rule based on common sense, a practical rule, not based on exact science. It is said to be derived from the fact that English law permitted a man to beat his wife with a stick as long as it was not thicker than his thumb. Some believe this to be an apocrophal tale, however. But it makes as much sense as any of the alternative explanations of the expression!