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Catbird seat

Q From Andrew: What is the origin of the phrase catbird’s seat? Is there such a thing as a catbird?

A The second half of your question is easy to answer, so I’ll do that first. There really is an American bird called the catbird, a member of a group called the mimic thrushes that also includes the mockingbirds and thrashers, all of them — as their group name suggests — skilled at imitating other birds, animals, and even telephones and other noises. The American species is strictly speaking the grey catbird, which lays the most beautiful turquoise eggs. It’s called a catbird because one of its most impressive imitations is the mew of a cat.

Catbird seat (as it is usually written) usually appears in the fuller form in the catbird seat, meaning to be in an advantageous or prominent position, one of ease and favour. Its first appearance in print was in a famous short story of that title by James Thurber, published in the New Yorker on 14 November 1942:

In the halls, in the elevator, even in his own office, into which she romped now and then like a circus horse, she was constantly shouting these silly questions at him. “Are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch? Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you hollering down the rain barrel? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?” It was Joey Hart, one of Mr. Martin’s two assistants, who had explained what the gibberish meant. “She must be a Dodger fan,” he had said. “Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions — picked ’em up down South.” Joey had gone on to explain one or two. “Tearing up the pea patch” meant going on a rampage; “sitting in the catbird seat” means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.

All the early examples are indeed associated with baseball, like this from the Middletown Times Herald in 1946: “On the other hand, should Munger beat Big Tex Hughson and the Red Sox, Dyer would be sitting in the catbird seat.” And Thurber is right to have his character say that the expression was popularised by the famous radio baseball commentator Walter Lanier “Red” Barber.

The comment about “down South”, however, was probably a guess based on Red Barber’s having been born in Columbus, Mississippi and having worked in Florida. Red Barber said in the Saturday Review in 1958 that he first heard it during a game of penny-ante poker while he was in Cincinnati, presumably sometime in the 1930s, and borrowed it for his radio broadcasts.

The basis for the expression is actually quite simple, I'm told. The phrase is said to derive from the habit of the catbird of sitting on the highest point it can find to deliver its song, thus suggesting an effortless superiority. Subscriber Dan Lufkin confirmed this in an e-mail: “If you lived in catbird country, as I do, you would instantly recognize the catbird seat as the highest point in your yard, from which a catbird — or its cousin, a mockingbird — begins loudly staking its territorial claim at first light, typically about 4:45 a.m. in the nesting season.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 4 Apr. 2004

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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: 4 April 2004.