We use the idiom ‘curiosity killed the cat’ without really knowing its origin or its complete meaning. Penlighten deciphers the story and the meaning behind this popular and commonly used phrase.
The idiom that is used every day curiosity killed the cat is a part of a longer statement, curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back. However, adding the later part to the idiom alters its meaning completely.
When we were kids, we must have come across old and isolated houses that had no visitors. We all were always eager to know what was inside that old, dingy, and empty house and planned a quiet adventure trip with our friends. The mystery surrounding the house surely made us a teensy bit curious. This might be just one of the instances of curiosity we came across when we were young. However, whenever we embarked on such a journey, it came with a slight warning―‘curiosity kills the cat.’
Why is it connected to cats, you ask? Well, a cat is said to be a naturally curious animal. It has a liking to investigate things, wander off, and get caught in dangerous situations. Such situations can be fatally dangerous in which the cat might end up losing its life. The idiom alludes to this nature of cats.
Origin of the Idiom ‘Curiosity Killed the Cat’
✦ Though no one can pinpoint the exact date and place where the idiom was conjured up, we can trace the use back in history. However, its first written use is attributed to English poet and playwright Ben Jonson. The phrase was used in his play Every Man in His Humour (1598)―“… Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care will kill a cat, up-tails all, and a pox on the hangman.” In the earlier version of the idiom, the word “care” was used instead of “curiosity,” which was defined as “worry” or “sorrow.”
✦ It was none other than English playwright and poet William Shakespeare who performed in Jonson’s play. He used the similar phrase in his play Much Ado About Nothing (1599), “What, courage man! what though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.”
✦ In 1898, the phrase came closer to the form that we know of today. Reverend Dr. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer included the phrase in the Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Care killed the Cat. It is said that “a cat has nine lives, yet care would wear them all out.”
✦ The variation of the idiom that we use today was first listed as an Irish proverb in James Allan Mair’s collection A handbook of proverbs: English, Scottish, Irish, American, Shakesperean, and scriptural; and family mottoes (1873). It was included in John Hendricks Bechtel’s Proverbs: Maxims and Phrases (1902) under the topic “curiosity.”
✦ In 1909, an American writer, O. Henry referred to the phrase ‘curiosity killed the cat’ in his short story Schools and Schools, “Curiosity can do more things than kill a cat; and if emotions, well recognized as feminine, are inimical to feline life, then jealousy would soon leave the whole world catless.”
✦ The phrase appeared as a headline in The Washington Post on March 4, 1916.
✦ In 1920, an American playwright, Eugene O’Neill included the idiom in his play Diff’rent, “BENNY-(with a wink) Curiosity killed a cat! Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”
✦ The longer version of the idiom includes a replay to the original idiom in the later half, “curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.” A variation of the longer phrase was first printed in The Galveston Daily News (August 10, 1905), Curiosity killed a cat; but it came back.” The whole phrase was used in The Titusville Herald (December 23, 1912.) Also, it was recorded in The Jewell Record on May 15, 1924.
✦ An American rock singer and songwriter, Iggy Pop included the phrase in his song “Curiosity” from the album “New Values” (1979),
“Curiosity killed the cat
But satisfaction brought it back
In terms of this cat, as a matter of fact
I’ll meet you at the old mouse hole
I’ll meet you at the old mouse hole.”
✦ The idiom means that your inquisitiveness can lead you to danger. The phrase serves as a warning to those who act upon their curiosity, which can be harmful for them. To quench their thirst, to find out truth, people jump into situations that can be physically harmful for them. For example, a friend might discourage a person who wants to do a bungee jump using this idiom.
✦ On the other hand, this saying can work as a warning to discourage nosy people or those asking too many questions. In such situations, one may not be killed, but might face discomfort, embarrassment, stress, etc.
✦ The idiom is a part of a longer phrase, which is seldom used. Though curiosity killed the cat has a negative undercurrent, the complete phrase ‘curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back’ might be looked upon as being supportive of one’s curious nature. It means that even though one might get harmed due to their curious nature, the satisfaction of uncovering things is worth the risk.
► Tom’s boss warned him that curiosity killed the cat as he was asking many questions about an employee who got fired last week.
► I wouldn’t go in that room if I were you. Don’t you know that curiosity killed the cat?
► “I want to know what it is like to skydive.” “Don’t do it. Curiosity killed the cat.”
It is always fun finding out how a certain phrase is originated because it makes it easier for us to use it, and same is the case with the idiom that we discussed in this post.