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Barber’s cat

Q From Mike Lean, Australia: I’ve come across the phrase wet and windy like the barber’s cat. Can you tell me anything about it? Why would a barber’s cat be so? Does it relate to a particular cat of fable or legend? Initial researches have yielded nothing.

A That’s a very old-fashioned expression, once known throughout the Anglophone countries, though not I think in the USA. It was popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but we rarely come across it now. Deputy Willie O’Dea alluded to it in the Dáil, the Irish parliament, on 26 September 2009: “There is no point coming into the House acting as the parliamentary version of the barber’s cat. We know what components made up that creature.”

I’ll bet few readers could tell Mr O’Dea what those components were. Looking into its history is complicated because one part of it was considered to be “an expression too coarse to print”, as John Camden Hotten commented in his Slang Dictionary in 1864. The form that he refused to print was “full of wind and piss, like the barber’s cat”. One meaning, surely the one Mr O’Dea had in mind, was of a uselessly and unnecessarily loquacious person. That sense was made explicit in this early appearance, though in a carefully euphemised version:

He should be the very last man in Dundee to call any one a windbag, for it is a well-known fact that, among his own class as well as among those who he says are “sometimes called the working classes,” he is generally considered the very Prince of Windbags. Indeed, it is often remarked about him that he is all wind and water, like the barber’s cat.

The Dundee Courier and Argus, 8 Sep. 1877.

Another version was as poor as a barber’s cat, which was expanded to refer to somebody who was half-starved, sickly or weak, though some later slang researchers said that it meant no more than that he was thin. Curiously, all dolled up like a barber’s cat is also on record, as is as conceited as a barber’s cat. Give a cat a bad name, it seems, and you can insult him as much as you like. There's also as fit as the butcher’s dog, a twentieth-century twist that possibly originated in Lancashire. The idea is that a butcher’s dog must be healthy because it’s well fed on meat, though that might equally imply that it was fat and lazy (Australians have had the variant full as a butcher’s dog, to have enjoyed a substantial meal).

The barber’s cat was low slang of the working classes, so its early history and origin are unclear. J Redding Ware argued in his Passing English of the Victorian Era in 1909 that it might be a corruption of the term bare brisket, which he said was “also used for a thin fellow, the brisket being the thinnest part of beef”. This is imaginative but too much so to be acceptable. More plausible was the hypothesis that a cat in a barber’s shop would find little to eat and so be poor or ill-served, an idea expanded much later to explain your version of the phrase:

   As he walked back he said to Mathews: “Do you know the expression — wet and windy, like the barber’s cat?”
   ”I know it well,” Mathews confessed. “Why the barber’s cat, I wonder?”
   ”A consequence of frugality,” the poet explained. “Its staple diet is hair and soapsuds.”

Strumpet City, by James Plunkett, 1969.

Page created 8 Jun. 2013

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Last modified: 8 June 2013.