Colorful Colloquialisms – “the cat’s ass in the moonlight” (English)

I thought that I’d stick a little closer to home with this post.  Extremely close, in fact, and share one of the multitude of colloquialisms gleaned from an everlasting, mind-boggling font from my small-town childhood – my parents.

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Now, there are a few ways I could go with this. “Faster than a whippoorwill’s butt with shutters” was always one of my dad’s favorites. My grandma was fond of “colder than a witch’s tit.” My grandfather always called my sister “small fry,” and I didn’t realize for longer than I care to admit that he didn’t mean strips of fried potato. More recently, I discovered the same phrase in Macbeth. I don’t know if my Grandpa ever knew he was quoting Shakespeare.  He was an intelligent man, but he dropped out of school after 7th grade to work to help support his family.

I could go on for pages (rural areas are extremely colorful linguistically), but for today’s post I thought I’d go with one of my mother’s sayings that still has me scratching my head: “the cat’s ass in the moonlight.” It’s usually used in the sentence, “He thinks he’s the cat’s ass in the moonlight,” and often shortened to the more common, “He thinks he’s the cat’s ass.” I’ve asked, believe me, but she’s never been able to give me specifics as to the phrase’s origins.

The simplified version, “the cat’s ass,” is a phrase that turned up quite often in my searching.  I took a definition for the phrase from the Online Slang Dictionary (they were all relatively the same), which defined it simply as, “something really great.” The phrase can be used to describe something really, really cool, as in “My new car is the cat’s ass,” or, in my mother’s case, it is used to say “he thinks he’s so great,” indicating that the target is arrogant.

I knew what she meant when she said the phrase.  The question I have always asked is, what is so great about a cat’s ass that someone felt the need to compare awesome things to it?

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The origin of the phrase is harder to find. I’ve only been able to discover that: 1. The phrase came into existence later than the 1920s trend of animal part phrases (“the bee’s knees”), and 2. If you believe Urban Dictionary, it was popular in the 1960s.  I don’t tend to use Urban Dictionary as a source, but that timeframe would fit neatly with my mother’s childhood, so it may not be too far off.

At least one source points to this phrase as an evolution of the 1920s phrase “the cat’s pajamas,” but another (Urban Dictionary again) asserts that it is a reference to the amount of time a cat spends grooming said body part. This actually makes sense, especially considered with the British equivalent, “the dog’s bollocks.” This would indicate that the definition could be restated as, “something that gets a lot of attention.”

Searching for the full phrase “the cat’s ass in the moonlight,” however, did not produce such results.  I found only two references. One was in the comments section of a forum thread discussing a new horse whose coat was apparently quite shiny. The other was in a memorial poem in a book called Carmen at the Fountain.

I did, find, though, several phrases that had “in the moonlight” tacked on to the end, such as “uglier than a dead monkey in the moonlight” and “goes through money like a goose shitting in the moonlight.”

Well, then. And I thought my family was creative with these things.

In any case, the phrase seems to be just… added on.  I can’t find any specific meaning for it, and sometimes it doesn’t even make sense as an addition. I can come up with ways this could work for the cat’s ass and the dead monkey.  Maybe the moonlight is pretty, making a good thing (cat’s ass, from the cat’s perspective, anyway) look better.  Maybe the lighting is bad, making an ugly thing (dead monkey) look worse.  Or it could be that the lighting is bad, making an ugly thing look good (cat’s ass).  But for the life of me I can’t see a way that moonlight would make anything go through a goose any faster or more messily.

While I intend to keep looking and hopefully one day find the origin and actual meaning of the phrase, it looks like I’m out of luck for now.  One of these days I may just have to take the time for some real research into the things my family says. I could probably write a book.

7 thoughts on “Colorful Colloquialisms – “the cat’s ass in the moonlight” (English)

  1. Pingback: I Don’t Know What to Say! | living with linguaphilia

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    • I could definitely see that. It feels kind of British to me, if that’s the case. At the same time, I can’t tell you how disturbing mingling those two images is!

      Thanks for the heads up! I’ll see if I can find out more about it.

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