9 Cat Idioms From 11 Different Languages

In this video two savvy felines, Cool Cat and Fat Cat, share some of the cat-themed idioms they’ve picked up from humans.
August 6, 2015

Cats sauntered into human civilization thousands of years ago, and we’ve been catering to their every whim ever since. They can be stingy with their affection, and tend to be bad gift givers (“a dead bird in my bed — again?”), but we still love and admire our arrogant, aloof, irrepressible feline companions. After so many years of cohabitation, it’s no wonder they’ve infiltrated the way we speak. Here are our nine favorite cat idioms with their equivalents in other languages:

1. To have nine lives like a cat (English)

Meaning: to have a talent for getting out of bad situations

Turkish: dokuz canlı kedi

Translation: cat with nine lives

Italian: Avere sette vite come i gatti

Translation: to have seven lives like a cat

Turkish, English and many Slavic languages assume cats have eight extra, mystical lives. Italian, German, Spanish and Portuguese give cats two fewer chances to defy mortality.

2. Retomber comme un chat sur ses pattes (French)

Translation: to land like a cat on his feet

Meaning: to be lucky or successful after being in a difficult situation

3. Cat got your tongue? (English)

Meaning: do you have nothing to say?

French: Donner sa langue au chat

Translation: to give one’s tongue to the cat

Meaning: to give up

Spanish: ¿Se te ha comido la lengua el gato?

Translation: did the cat eat your tongue?

Meaning: why aren’t you talking?

4. Gato escaldado tem medo de água fria (Portuguese)

Translation: a scalded cat fears cold water

Meaning: to be traumatized by a bad experience

5. When the cat’s away, the mice will play (English)

Meaning: when an authority figure is away, those under them enjoy some freedom

Italian: Quando il gatto non c’è, i topi ballano

Translation: when the cat’s not here, the mice dance

German: Wenn die Katze aus dem Haus ist, tanzen die Mäuse auf dem Tisch

Translation: when the cat’s out of the house, the mice dance on the table

Croatian: Kad mačke nema, miševi vode kolo

Translation: when the cat’s gone, the mice lead the kolo

Meaning: when the boss is away, someone under them calls the shots

The kolo is a traditional Balkan dance popular at weddings and other social gatherings. It involves a large group of people dancing in a circle while holding hands. One person tends to lead the dance.

6. नौ सौ चूहे खाके बिल्ली हज को चली (Nau Sau Choohey Khakar Billi Hajj Ko Chali) (Hindi)

Translation: after eating 900 rats, the cat goes on a pilgrimage

Meaning: to veil a lifetime of wrongdoing with a few token expressions of virtue later in life

7. Nu arunca pisica în curtea altuia (Romanian)

Translation: don’t throw the cat in someone else’s yard

Meaning: don’t blame someone else

8. All cats are grey in the dark (English)

Meaning: the differences don’t really matter

Swedish: Om natten är alla katter grå

Translation: at night, all cats are grey

Portuguese: À noite, todos os gatos são pardos

Translation: at night, all cats are brown

9. Avoir un chat dans la gorge (French)

Translation: to have a cat in the throat

Meaning: to have a phlegmy, hoarse throat

BONUS: There’s more than one way to skin a cat (English)

Meaning: there are many different ways to solve a problem

Interested in learning a language? It's OK, a little curiosity never hurt anyone.
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Author Headshot
John-Erik Jordan
John-Erik was born in Los Angeles and grew up in a suburb named after Tarzan (yes, really). He's lived in Berlin since 2009 and has been Babbel Magazine's managing editor since 2015. Most of his free time is taken up by unhealthy obsessions with science fiction, tabletop games and the Dodgers.
John-Erik was born in Los Angeles and grew up in a suburb named after Tarzan (yes, really). He's lived in Berlin since 2009 and has been Babbel Magazine's managing editor since 2015. Most of his free time is taken up by unhealthy obsessions with science fiction, tabletop games and the Dodgers.

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