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Kitty

Q From Steve Moore: Why is the money in the middle of a poker game (or any other card game) called the kitty?

A Just to get it out of the way, it has no connection with the pet name for a cat. Having said that, if I told you the word came from an old North Country English term for a prison, would you believe me? That’s the explanation put forward, rather cautiously, in the various Oxford dictionaries. I’m unconvinced myself, since one of the links in the chain of evidence is extremely weak. But there is another possibility.

The most frequent usage of kitty is that of some fund of money for communal use made up of individual contributions. You might, for example, go to the pub with a group of friends and have a whip round for contributions to a kitty to pay for the first rounds of drinks. Or a club might pay for the tea and biscuits at meetings by arranging to have a kitty. This sense is first recorded in the 1880s. Though it had close associations with poker games in its earliest recorded examples, it wasn’t (and isn’t) the name for the prize pot itself, but instead for a sum taken out of the pot to pay for the expenses of the game, such as buying drinks or a house percentage. For example, in 1935, Alvin Pollock wrote in a book called The Underworld Speaks that the kitty was the “money taken from virtually every gambling pot for purpose of profits or expenses”.

Going back in time half a century, we know that kitty was a term in various northern English dialects for a prison or house of correction. It’s a modified form of kidcote (a word which has had several spellings), once known from English counties such as Yorkshire and Lincolnshire — prisons of this name once existed in Wakefield, York, Lincoln, Gainsborough and Lancaster among other places. Kidcote is recorded from the sixteenth century, but had become obsolete by the time the English Dialect Dictionary was compiled at the end of the nineteenth century. That work quotes several sources to show that a kidcote was usually a temporary lock-up or holding cell in which prisoners were put overnight to await their appearance before magistrates. It seems to have been a facetious term, since it probably literally meant a pen for a young goat (kid plus cote, a little cottage, so a close relative of dovecote).

So far so good. Oxford Dictionaries say tentatively that the money sense of kitty comes from the prison sense. This looks very much like a bunch of researchers pushing words around and doing the lexicographical equivalent of making two and two equal five, as no direct evidence seems to exist to show that the one evolved out of the other, and the concepts are far apart. One writer, not from Oxford Dictionaries, has suggested that the money in the kitty was so called because it was taken out of general circulation and, as it were, locked up or imprisoned until it was needed. This is stretching matters a bit too far to be readily credible.

Let us turn to another suggestion, which makes rather more sense, though there’s no more evidence for it than for the other one. It’s asserted, especially in some American dictionaries and also in the Collins dictionary, that it’s from the much older kit for a set of articles needed for a particular purpose, such as a soldier’s kit, so that a kitty would be a diminutive form, a small kit. If so, it would be a relative of the American whole kit and caboodle; that might be relevant, as the first known example of the word is from a little book on the rules of draw poker written by John Keller and published in New York in 1887.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 17 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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This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-kit2.htm
Last modified: 17 April 2004.