Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Grin Like A Cheshire Cat

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 7, 2013

When someone smiles or grins like a Cheshire cat, they’re smiling broadly … very broadly. Now, do cats actually smile? They do, but not the way humans do. According to animal experts and studies done, cats do a slow blink that’s the equivalent to a human smile.

You’re probably wondering why the expression is tied to a broad smile if cats do a slow blink. Some of you might even think that the expression originated with English author, Lewis Carroll who wrote about the Cheshire cat and its smile in his book, ” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” that was published 1865.

Author William Makepeace Thackeray (July 18, 1811 – December 24, 1863) used the idiom in his book “The Newcomes: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family” that was published in 1855. The story is about Colonel Thomas Newcome, and his son Clive, and reflects the culture of its time. Some critics have said that it’s an accurate representation of Victorian life with liberal mention of culture, politics and expressions in languages other than English. In Chapter XXIV, Mr. Newcome says to Mr. Pendennis:

For her own part, Rosey is pleased with everything in nature. Does she love music? Oh, yes. Bellini and Donizetti? Oh, yes. Dancing? They had no dancing at grandmamma’s, but she adores dancing, and Mr. Clive dances very well indeed. (A smile from Miss Ethel at this admission.) Does she like the country? Oh, she is so happy in the country! London? London is delightful, and so is the seaside. She does not really know which she likes best, London or the country, for mamma is not near her to decide, being engaged listening to Sir Brian, who is laying down the law to her, and smiling, smiling with all her might. In fact, Mr. Newcome says to Mr. Pendennis in his droll, humorous way, “That woman grins like a Cheshire cat.” Who was the naturalist who first discovered that peculiarity of the cats in Cheshire?

In Volume III of the 5 volume collection entitled, “The Works of Peter Pindar, Esq To Which Are Prefixed Memoirs of the Author’s Life” readers will find an entry entitled, “Epistles to Lord Macartney and His Ship.” Peter Pindar was actually a pseudonym for English satirist John Wolcot (9 May 1738 – 14 January 1819), and this undertaking was published 1794. And right there in this entry, the following verse is found:

Yet, if successful, thou wilt be adored:
Lo, like a Cheshire Cat our Court will grin;
How glad to find as many Gems on board
As will not leave the room to stick a Pin!

In the 1811, 1788 and 1785  editions of “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” by Francis Grose, — considered in the 19th century as one of the most important collections of slang in the English language — there’s an entry under “Cheshire Cat‘ and it reads:

He grins like a Cheshire cat; said of any one who shews his teeth and gums in laughing.

Now interestingly enough, I came across a letter that was written as a Reply to the entry “Grinning Like A Cheshire Cat” in the Cheshire Notes and Queries of August 18, 1882 in which the author, Alfred Burton, references the Slang Dictionary by John Camden Hotten, wrote:

In the Slang Dictionary (edition 1873, pp 115-116) there is a variation in the above saying which has not been given in “Notes and Queries.” To grin like a Cheshire cat — to display the teeth and gums when laughing.” Formerly the phrase was “To grin like a Cheshire cat eating cheese.”

In researching this phrase, Idiomation came across a different reference book. This one was authored by Lieutenant-Colonel Egerton Leigh entitled, “A Glossary of Words Used In The Dialect of Cheshire” published in Long by Hamilton Adams and Co and in Chester by Minshull and Hughes in 1877.  In the dedication, Egerton Leigh stated that these were from “dialectal fragments of our old County” and he hoped they “now have a chance of not vanishing entirely, amid changes which are rapidly sweeping away the past.”  He attests to the fact that the saying, in its entirety is:  Grin like a Cheshire cat eating cheese.

Very telling, however, is the fact that in the You Asked Us column printed in the Montreal Gazette of June 4, 1977 stated, in replying to the question as to why the cat in Lewis Carroll’s book was from Cheshire, the explanation was this:

Carroll knew that his audience would recognize his playing with an expression common in England for at least a hundred years before Alice In Wonderland was published. To grin like a Cheshire cat eating cheese (chewing gravel or evacuating bones), meant to smile all over one’s face for no apparent reason.

According to the magazine Replies published on October 4, 1879, the idiom “He smiled like a Chasse cat was also used in the midland counties around the same time, and an article suggested that the idiom may actually have substituted either Chasse Cat or Cheshire Cat for the term House Cat.

An additional reference in other dictionaries that was uncovered was this one referring to English caricaturist and satirical poet, John Collier (18 December 1708–14 July 1786) who was known by the pseudonym of Tim Bobbin as well as Timothy Bobbin. His first significant illustrated piece appears in 1746.

To grin like a Cheshire cat is to display the teeth and gums whilst laughing (à la Tim Bobbin).

All that being said, the earliest that the Idiomation could come to determining how far back grin like a Cheshire cat goes, is at least to the early 1700s (and most likely much earlier) when all the evidence from various magazines and dictionaries are compiled.

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