Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

All Cats Are Gray In The Dark

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 6, 2011

When in the dark, appearances are meaningless, since everything is hard to see or is unseen. It also means that all persons are undistinguished until they have made a name for themselves.

Back in 1953, writing as Andrew North, Andre Norton (1912 – 2005) — whose real name was Alice Mary Norton — wrote “All  Cats Are Gray.”  The book appeared to be a basic, straight-forward science fiction story with heroes riding about  in a derelict spaceship with a menacing space alien in the mix and a little love and good fortune thrown into the mix.  But it was different in that it was the heroine and not the hero who was very much the protagonist.

On January 13, 1896 the New York Times ran an editorial with a hodge podge of smaller articles, one of which addressed the concept that all cats are gray in the dark.  The tidbit relating to the phrase read in part:

Without pretending to know just what objection the Colonial Dames have to Ben Franklin, we are inclined to ascribe their hostility to his assertion that “all cats are gray in the dark.”  The aphorism — like most of those on which the old Philistine’s fame is based — has no foundation whatsoever in fact.  Black cats, for instance, are not gray in the dark, but blacker than ever, even to the point of disappearing entirely.  Not only is the expression false from the standpoint of observation and natural history, but it was not original with Franklin. He stole it in France and then passed it off for his own.  Now he’s getting punished for the crime.

In Miguel de Cervantes‘ book, “Don Quixote” a version of the phrase “all cats are grey in the dark” is found in Part ii, Book iii, Chapter xxxiii.

And if your highness does not like to give me the government you promised, God made me without it, and maybe you’re not giving it to me will be all the better for my conscience, for fool as I am I know the proverb ‘to her hurt the ant got wings,’ and it may be that Sancho the squire will get to heaven sooner than Sancho the governor. ‘They make as good bread here as in France,’ and ‘by night all cats are grey,’ and ‘a hard case enough his, who hasn’t broken his fast at two in the afternoon,’ and ‘there’s no stomach a hand’s breadth bigger than another,’ and the same can he filled ‘with straw or hay,’ as the saying is, and ‘the little birds of the field have God for their purveyor and caterer,’ and ‘four yards of Cuenca frieze keep one warmer than four of Segovia broad-cloth,’ and ‘when we quit this world and are put underground the prince travels by as narrow a path as the journeyman,’ and ‘the Pope’s body does not take up more feet of earth than the sacristan’s,’ for all that the one is higher than the other; for when we go to our graves we all pack ourselves up and make ourselves small, or rather they pack us up and make us small in spite of us, and then — good night to us.

The phrase appeared as “when all candles be out, all cats be gray” in John Heywood‘s “Book Of Proverbs” published in 1547 that version is essentially the same as the more modern version.  And, of course, the John Heywood version was pre-dated by that of Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536) as it appears in his book of proverbs and adages, and is considered by Erasmus to be a Gallic proverb rather than a French proverb.

However, the French of the day did say, “at night, all cats are gray” and Yiddish speakers are known to say, “you can throw a cat wherever you want, it always falls on its feet.”  Still the expression was well-entrenched in a number of languages and historically speaking, I can only reach as far back as the generation before Erasmus’ book published in 1500.

Special thanks to Stephen Kruger for providing additional information on this entry.  His input is greatly appreciated.

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