Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Fight Like Cats And Dogs

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 2, 2013

Have you ever known people to fight like cats and dogs? While it’s true that dogs like to annoy cats, it’s just as true that cats like to annoy dogs. But do they ever get into fights with each other? What we do know is that when people are said to be fighting like cats and dogs, they’re arguing loudly, relentlessly and without any resolution in sight.

On July 9, 2013 the News Tribune published a news article written by Melissa Santos entitled, “Senate Leader Suggests Fines To Speed Work.” The story focused on the concept of charging lawmakers for forcing the legislative session for going past the allotted length because senators were unable to agree on a budget during the 105 days of the 2013 session, resulting in the session lasting an additional 48 paid days to the senators. The state representative for Medina and Chair of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, Ross Hunter, was quote in the article as saying:

“This was a very difficult budget to negotiate,” Hunter said. “We are going to fight like cats and dogs for the next four or five years to get this problem resolved.”

Going back in time to November 17, 1958, the News and Courier of Charleston (SC) published a news article entitled, “Russia and Red China Are Firmly United.” The article was about Adlai Stevenson’s realization that the unity of Soviet Russia and Red China was solid and unshakable. At that time in history, many Americans were inclined to believe that the Soviet Union would fall apart, taking with it, Communist China. But Adlai Stevenson saw things differently. He was quoted in the story as saying:

” … it would be a very great mistake to underestimate the present solidarity of the Soviet Union and China, or indeed, as Mr. Khrushchev implied, of the whole Communist empire. They may fight like cats and dogs with each other, but as to the outside world their unity is formidable. They will stick together. Theirs is one universe; ours is another.”

On May 22, 1926 the Beaver Falls Tribune of Beaver Falls (PA) published Chapter v in a serialized story about John Milburn, partner in the advertising firm of Graham & Milburn. In this chapter, readers are treated to some delicious details about the curvaceous Nell Orme and her difficult marriage. Pat Forbes is very willing to share the story as readers can see from this excerpt:

Forbes lighted a cigaret and blew several lazy wreaths of smoke before he answered. “No, they don’t seem to get along. Doggoned if I can understand it, either. They’ve got a lot of money — he’s a fairly successful contractor — and they’ve both god looks’ but privately they fight like cats and dogs. You’d never suspect it to meet them in a crowd.”

When American author and literary critic, William Dean (W.D.) Howells (March 1, 1837 – May 11, 1920) wrote “Questionable Shapes” which was published in 1903, he wrote it with the precision he expected of others. With just over 43,000 words, the author captured reality with such passages as this one:

“Did they ever?” I asked.

“Oh, yes–oh, yes,” said the psychologist, kindly. “They were very fond of each other, and often very peaceful.”

“I never happened to be by,” I said.

“Used to fight like cats and dogs,” said Minver. “And they didn’t seem to mind people. It was very swell, in a way, their indifference, and it did help to take away a fellow’s embarrassment.”

“That seemed to come mostly to an end that summer,” said Wanhope, “if you could believe Mrs. Ormond.”

According to the Webster Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, the expression fight like cats and dogs came about around 1550. Idiomation was unable to trace the exact phrase back to 1550, however, a variation was traced back to at least 1610.

The Tragedie of Cymbeline: King of Britaine” by William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) was written sometime in 1610 or earlier.  It was performed at the Globe Theater in 1611.    The play is based on the Celtic legend of King Cunobelinus. Some critics refer to it as a tragedy while others refer to it as a romance. And while the word “fight” doesn’t appear in this passage, the reference to killing creatures certainly means that cats and dogs fight.

CYMBALINE:
What’s this, Cornelius?

CORNELIUS:
The Queene Sir very oft importun’d me
To temper poysons for her, still pretending
The satisfaction of her knowledge, onely
In killing Creatures vilde, as Cats and Dogges
Of no esteeme. I dreading, that her purpose
Was of more danger, did compound for her
A certaine stuffe, which being tane, would cease
The present powre of life, but in short time,
All Offices of Nature, should againe
Do their due Functions. Haue you tane of it?

IMOGEN:
Most like I did, for I was dead

The word cat has its roots in the the 12th century with the French word chat, the Spanish word gato, the Italian word gatto, the Breton word kaz, the Welsh word kath, and the Gaelic word cat. The word dog has its roots in the French word dogue and the Danish dogge from the 16th century.

English physician, Johannes Caius (6 October 1510 – 29 July 1573) — also known as John Kays — wrote about the “Mastiue or Bandogge” in 1570 and referred to such dogs thus:

For it is a kinde of dogge capeable of courage, violent and valiaunt, striking could feare into the harts of men, but standing in feare of no man, in so much that no weapons will make him shrincke, nor abridge his boldnes.

Since some dogs were bred to be violent, it stands to reason that a cat that was cornered by such a dog would fight back just as violently and just as valiantly, with neither side giving in.

So although Idiomation was unable to trace the expression back to 1550, the early forms of the expression are found in late 16th and early 17th Century literature.  It is therefore very probable that the idiom does, indeed, date back to at least 1550.

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