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cat -o'-nine-tails

Everyone has heard of the infamous cat -o'-nine-tails, known aboard ship simply as "The Cat".

The Cat was a whip with nine separate tails on a single handle. Its only use was to flog the sailors. Its origin is believed to date back to ancient Egypt, where the domestic cat was sacred and, even then, was said to have nine lives. The Egyptians believed that by scourging with cat hide, good passed from the whip to the victim.

The Cat was kept in a bag until needed. Once the victim was "over a barrel" (tied hand and foot, face down over a barrel to expose his back) the bosun would "let The Cat out of the bag" to begin his task. As the victim's back began to bleed, the nine tails would tend to stick together. A stroke with the tails matted together could cause serious and permanent injury. So the bosun, in the victim's best interest, would use his fingers to "comb the cat" between strokes to keep the tails separated.

The bosun needed room to lay on his strokes. He couldn't stand too close to rigging, spars or other men or he might get the tails caught. Thus, when quarters were especially tight, there would be "no room to swing a cat".


The term "not room enough to swing a cat" has nothing to do with the little creatures we love but can't control. It refers to the cat o'nine tails that were used aboard the old sailing ships. Traditionally, the cat o'nine tails was kept in a green baize bag until just before use. That is the origin of "letting the cat out of the bag".

Trinidad and Tobago News

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