Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Cat That Ate The Canary

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 14, 2011

Usually when someone appears smug and self-satisfied with just a hint of guilt,  satisfaction and/or feigned nonchalance added to the mix, that person is said to look “like the cat that ate the canary.”  The version of this phrase in the UK and Australia is that the person is said to look “like the cat that got the cream.”

On March 26, 2011 Walt Whiteman, the blogger at Walt Whiteman’s World wrote this about Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

It is something of a Canadian tradition for governments to be contemptuous of Parliament and its ordinary members. Pierre Trudeau famously called MP’s “nobodies”. But M. Trudeau smiled when he said it, whereas Harper’s face is frozen in this cat-that-ate-the-canary smirk.

Walt hasn’t actually read yesterday’s Hansard, but heard that Harper was asked “Are you trying to show your contempt for this House?”, and answered, “No. I’m doing my very best to disguise it.”

Almost 30 years to the day earlier, the Miami News published a story written by Mike Downey of the Chicago Sun-Times on March 31, 1981 about basketball great, Isiah Thomas.  Mike Downey wrote in part:

Yesterday, it was the story of Isiah Thomas.  You probably saw him score 23 points last night in Indiana’s 63-50 win over North Carolina for the national championship.  You probably heard him announced as the NCAA tournament’s most outstanding player.  What you should have seen was his act after the game.  The kid is something else.  Impeccable manners, snappy answers, cat-that-ate-the-canary smile, playful-as-a-puppy behaviour.  You should have seen the pint-sized sophomore, mobbed by his admirers as he strolled off the court after the game.

Oddly enough, on November 16, 1952 the Victoria Advocate ran a brief story with the photograph of a very forlorn kitty.  Here’s the story:

No wonder this nameless cat won’t look you in the eye.  He is guilty as only a cat can be.  He just ate not only one, but five canaries.  The sad story began when the stray cat was locked accidentally in a department store overnight in Keene, N.H.  The next morning store officials found the cat had knocked over a cage of canaries, springing the cage door.  Only the bird in the cage above the cat survived.

Cat That Ate The Canary and Four More After That

Going back to 1911, the phrase “cat that ate the canary” was used to describe another political figure in the Milwaukee Journal of June 2 in a news story entitled, “Czar A Tactless Guest.”

Signs of particular disgust showed on the czar’s face when the iced melon hors d’oeuvres were brought on.  President Fallieres invariably indulges in this luxury.  The czar, however, lacked the tact evidenced by President Taft when certain of the southern states served their favorite dishes.  He refused to smile and looked like the cat that ate the canary.  He made a wry face and uttered this ominous indictment:  “In dismissing Loubet’s unrivaled chef, Fallieres has wrought a national calamity.”

Now, back in 1891 and 1892, several newspapers in Australia, the UK and America took to printing the same quick joke in their humour columns:

Father:  That cat made an awful noise in the back garden last night.
Son:  Yes, sir.  I guess that since he ate the canary, he thinks he can sing.

Prior to the printing of the joke, however, Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published reference to the phrase.

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2 Responses to “Cat That Ate The Canary”

  1. […] License. The picture on the driver’s license looks like I’m “the cat that ate the canary.” That’s exactly the way I felt finally getting to the picture and finger-prints part […]

  2. […] researching this phrase my favorite reference was a fellow blogger and their post can be found at Cat That Ate the Canary. My favorite part is their reference to a story of a cat in New Hampshire that ate five canaries, […]

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