Thursday, 14 January 2010

Macavity Had Better Watch Out...

I’ve created a blog, and I’m already scared of it. What’s the point? What can I do? I started to think like a marketing consultant, luring parents towards some ghastly Pokemon rip-off their kids will hate when they bring it home for them. In short: Why should anyone visit this blog?

Whilst I fret about this, I’ve come up with a little idea. As often as I can (because I’m too busy/lazy/forgetful to make a promise to do this daily), I’m going to try and make a specific kind of update. Here, I’m going to take a word or a proverb, and dissect it in my own way. If it works, it stays. Simple.

So, without further ado, we begin with a well known (and rather ironic) phrase…

“Curiosity killed the cat”

Meaning: You shouldn’t poke your nose in too much.

It’s one of those idioms that gets kicked around a lot, and I felt it was worth taking a moment to look into. The first recorded use goes all the way back to Shakespeare himself, who used the line “Though care killed the cat, thou hast enough mettle to kill care” in Much Ado About Nothing. So the phrase number amongst the bajillion million other things Shakeyspeare gave to English, or at least made popular.

Having kicked around in society for three hundred years, “Care killed the cat” had relatively frequent use in other works, ensuring its survival. The phrase we use, where “curiosity” takes the place of “care”, came about in the early 20th century. This was probably to avoid the confusion “care” might have caused some readers. In case you hadn’t picked up on it, it’s supposed to be read as in “take care”, not “I care about which Z-list celebrities are shoved in a house together for weeks on end”.

Actually, it was used in the second sense, and by Agatha Christie, mistress of mystery. In fact, she’s known to have used “curiosity” in the first sense, and “care” for the lavish fuzzy feeling, but still with a dead kitten at the end of it all. That takes us on another route of exploration: why does this cat have to die?

The fact the phrase was used by Agatha gives us a big fat clue. It’s excessively ominous, for example…

Poirot: Do you know where my keys are?

Miss Marple: Curiosity killed the cat.

Immediately, we get suspicious. Surely Miss Marple knows or she doesn’t, so why hide behind such a strange line? Try this example…

Poirot: Where’s John? I haven’t seen him for weeks…

Miss Marple: Curiosity killed the cat.

SHE DID IT! It’s soooo obvious! It’s evasive, it’s unusual, and it’s really rather threatening. The death of the cat seems to be a forewarning for Poirot, suggesting Miss Marple will kill him too if he keeps going. The alliteration helps, too. “K” is one of the shorter sounds we make when we speak. You can’t hold it, it’s naturally short. In four words, we get it three times. That’s a lot of emphasis on cutting things short. If you see where I’m coming from, it looks like Miss Marple’s really trying to tell Poirot to shove it, and quick.

There we have it, everything you’ll ever need to know and more about curiosity killing cats. From 1598 through to Poirot and Miss Marple’s investigations, it’s been lurking in our literature for quite some time. I hope this sort of thing has an audience out there, and I’ll gladly keep this up if it does.

Until then, beware those in possession of dark-sounding idioms…

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