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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Curiosity vs Cats

A Curious Cat in the 17th Century
In a student questionnaire, I asked my class for their favorite saying.  One girl responded it was "Curiosity killed the mockingbird."  It took all of my powers of suasion, plus that of at least one of her friends, that there was no such saying, or at least there hadn't been until she'd come up with it.

That got me thinking about the original saying, however, and wondering why curiosity had such legendary and mortal powers over cats.  A bit of research confirmed my suspicion.  Originally curious did not mean inquisitive, but careful and meticulous.  A curious tradesman wasn't someone who pried into your family secrets, but someone who did his work with diligent attention to detail.  The curiosity that killed the cat was being too careful.  A variant of this saying was "care killed the cat."

A Curious Cat Today
Shakespeare alludes to this when Lady Macbeth chides her husband for letting "'I dare not' wait upon 'I would,' like the cat i' the adage."  The cat's problem is being cautious and shilly shallying.  By the way, shilly shally is derived from "will I, shall I?" a question a cat in an adage might ponder as he let "I dare not" wait upon "I would."  Shilly shally's cousin, dilly dally, is derived from dally, which is related to delay.  The dilly was added just to make it sound silly.

All this is to say, it's much more likely for a cat to be too curious, in our modern sense, than too careful and cautious.  I've never seen a cat getting in trouble for hanging back and weighing consequences.  As for the mockingbird part, my student conflated the saying with the title of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.  It's bad to kill mockingbirds because they are songbirds that do no harm to anyone and are inedible besides.  I do not know of a mockingbird who was ever killed for being too curious or too cautious.

So why did I bother researching how the saying, Curiosity killed the cat, came over time to have almost precisely the opposite meaning as it originally did?

Just curious, I guess.

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