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The cat’s mother

Q From Jane Van de Ban; a similar question came from Richard Dury in Italy: Can you tell me anything about the expression Who’s she? The cat’s mother? I’ve heard it used in a context in which you’re talking about a woman and referring to her as she rather than by name.

A How it came into being, I really can’t begin to discover. All I can tell you is that it’s first recorded about the end of the nineteenth century (at least, the Oxford English Dictionary has citations from that period; Jonathon Green says in his Cassell Dictionary of Slang that it dates only from the 1950s in the form of a direct reply to somebody asking rudely or intrusively “who are you?”). In its older form, as you say, it was usually said to a child who used she to refer to some grown-up when this was thought to be insufficiently polite.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 20 Mar. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 20 March 1999.