Curious Cats, Stolen Thunder, and Gold Cards

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February 8, 2017 by libroshombre


Besides warming your cockles, purchasing a 2-year Gold Card with a $100 donation to the Fairbanks Library Foundation, means all that money will go towards making our library better. As a bonus you can borrow new books twice as long. So I’m unhurriedly perusing a few newly-arrived tomes, like “Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives,” by Tim Harford, and “A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life,” by Brian Grazer.

Edmund Burke claimed “The first and simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind is curiosity,” and when it comes to curiosity, cats don’t have much on librarians. My old pal, the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD), defines “curiosity” as “a desire to know or learn.” But you can have too much of a good thing. For example, an adjoining AHD mini-essay cites “ ‘curious,’ ‘inquisitive,’ ‘snoopy,’ ‘nosy.’ These adjectives apply to persons who show a marked desire for information or knowledge. ‘Curious’ most often implies an avid desire to know or learn, though it can suggest prying … ‘inquisitive’ frequently suggests excessive curiosity … ‘snoopy’ suggests underhanded prying” and “ ‘nosy implies impertinent curiosity likened to that of an animal using its nose to examine or probe.”

            If curiosity indeed killed the cat, which cat is being discussed? One of the first uses of that idiom was O. Henry in his 1909 story, “Schools and Schools,” in which he wrote, “Curiosity can do more things than kill a cat.” “There is an older phrase,” according to website: “ ‘Care killed the cat.’ The ‘care’ is typically defined as ‘worry’ or ‘sorrow.’ ” Though rarely used nowadays, it was popular in the 16th century when it was utilized by well-known playwrights, including Shakespeare, who in “Much Ado About Nothing” wrote, “What, courage man! What though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.”

“Stealing someone’s thunder” is another idiom with an amusing past. Theatrical productions have employed an array of devices to reproduce thunderous sound effects, according to, including “rolling metal balls down troughs, grinding lead shot in bowls, [and] shaking sheets of thin metal.” English poet Alexander Pope mentioned it in his satire, “The Dunciad,” in 1728: “With Shakespeare’s nature, or with Johnson’s art,/ Let others aim: ‘Tis yours to shake the soul With Thunder rumbling from the mustard bowl.”

The article describes how “the literary critic and largely unsuccessful playwright John Dennis … invented a new method of creating the sound of thunder” for his 1704 play “Appius and Virginia.” “We don’t know now what this method was (some texts say it was a refinement of the mustard bowl referred to by Pope, in which metal balls were rolled around in a wooden bowl).” “Appius and Virginia” bombed, but “the method was soon afterwards used in a production of Macbeth.” An abject Dennis was quoted saying, “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder!”

“Idiom” is defined by Macmillan Dictionary as “an expression whose meaning is different from the meaning of the individual words.” It’s from the 1620s and descends from the Greek “idioma: peculiarity, peculiar phraseology.” For example, “the whole shebang” won’t mean much to people just learning English, since it comes from “military jargon for a soldier’s tent, where his possessions were kept,” according to “Green’s Dictionary of Slang.”

“Inverted idioms,” in which common idioms are turned inside-out are a word game. “Never permit a curious cat to stand,” for instance, is inverted into “Let sleeping dogs lie.” And “My condition is right as rain” inverts into “wrong as drought.” However, in France they “let sleeping cats lie,” and instead of frogs “get a cat in your throat.” instead of a frog. In Italy instead of having “other fish to fry, they have “other cats to skin,” and in Germany they’re “like a cat around hot porridge” when they “beat around the bush.”

            When visiting your library, take a leaf out of a wise person’s book and don’t judge the books by their covers. The oldest trick in the book is at your library, where you’ll find thousands of open books, those marvelous windows to the world.




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