Unraveling the History: Why Are Cats Called Cats?

A Closeup at Cat's Face
Dr. Mollie Newton
Published by Dr. Mollie Newton PHD| Senior Editor
Last updated: April 26, 2024
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The journey to uncover the etymology of the term ‘cat’ navigates us through a linguistic transition, from its roots in the Roman Empire’s ‘cattus’ to its widespread use in today’s era. This piece will shed light on the question, “Why are cats called cats?” by exploring historical shifts to decode the ordinary moniker of these much-loved creatures.

Key Takeaways

  • The term ‘cat’ originates from Old English ‘catt’ and Middle English ‘cat, catte’. It is possibly derived from Late Latin ‘cattus’, sharing linguistic connections with Afro-Asiatic languages such as Nubian ‘kadīs’, which suggest an African origin and indicate the term’s widespread adoption across language families.
  • The domestication of cats began approximately 10,000 to 12,000 years ago in the Near East. Cats developed mutually beneficial relationships with humans through their role in pest control, and this relationship evolved as humans settled and traveled, spreading cats across the world without controlled breeding.
  • Cats hold an important place in various world cultures, affecting their naming and perception. In ancient Egypt, cats were venerated and associated with deities, while in European folklore, they attained mystical significance. The term ‘cat’ later expanded to include all felines and was influenced by cats’ unique physical traits and social behaviors.

The Etymology of “Cat”

The term “cat” that we commonly use today has a rich linguistic history that spans continents and millennia. It all started with the Old English ‘catt’, evolving into Middle English ‘cat, catte’, which was likely derived from the Late Latin term ‘cattus’. This term started appearing in Latin texts around 75 CE and became widely used by 700 CE.

The Late Latin ‘cattus’ shares potential ties with the Nubian terms ‘kadīs’ and ‘kaddîs’, both meaning ‘wildcat’. This connection indicates a possible African origin of the word, hinting at an Afro-Asiatic root. Furthermore, etymological links suggest a common history with words from other languages, including Syriac, Arabic, and Uralic languages.

Ancient Roots

The ancient roots of the term “cat” can be traced back to the regions where cats were first domesticated. The Nubian word ‘kadīs’ and the Arabic ‘قَطّ‎ qaṭṭ ~ قِطّ qiṭṭ’ serve as evidence of this ancient connection. Cats were revered in these regions for their skill in keeping rodent populations in check, and this mutual benefit likely helped forge the early human-cat bond.

The Latin term ‘cattus’ and its variant in Late Latin further illustrate how ancient Rome played a role in the development of the word ‘cat’. This influence extended to the Old Irish ‘catt’ and the Proto-Celtic ‘*kattos’, suggesting a broader European adoption of the term. These linguistic ties provide a glimpse into the early stages of cat domestication and the formation of the word we use today.

Modern Adaptations

The term ‘cat’ has remained relatively stable throughout the history of the English language. Its historical varieties, such as Middle English ‘catte’, attest to its enduring linguistic legacy. However, as languages evolved and cultures intermingled the term ‘cat’ found its unique adaptations in various languages.

In Romance languages, ‘gatto’ in Italian, ‘gato’ in Spanish, and ‘chat’ in French all derive from the same Late Latin source. Slavic languages also adopted the term, with ‘kotuka’ in Old Church Slavonic and ‘koška’ in Russian, along with ‘katti’ in Finnish—a loan from Lithuanian. These variations highlight the diversification and adoption of the term across various language families.

The term ‘pussycat’ evolved to symbolize the affectionate qualities attributed to cats, varying in meaning across different cultures and languages.

The Domestication of Cats

An illustration of ancient human settlements with cats as companions
An illustration of ancient human settlements with cats as companions

The journey of cats from being wild animals to becoming beloved companions is as intriguing as the evolution of their name. This unique relationship between humans and cats began around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. Cats, including feral cats, have been living outdoors with humans for more than 10,000 years, providing invaluable rodent control and earning their place in our hearts and homes. As a result, feral cats worldwide continue to coexist with humans, fulfilling their natural role in various ecosystems.

Cats traveled with humans around the globe, establishing mutually beneficial relationships. The advent of kitty litter in the 1960s further popularized cats as indoor pets. Carl Linnaeus proposed ‘Felis catus’ in 1758 as the scientific name for domestic cats, which evolved from Middle Eastern wildcats such as Felis silvestris lybica.

Early Human Settlements

The first human-cat connection can be traced back to the Near East around 7500–7200 BC. African wildcats were drawn to early human settlements by the presence of rodents feeding on crops and stored grain. This mutualistic relationship marked the commencement of a long and evolving partnership between humans and cats.

The transformation from wildcat to home companion occurred gradually over thousands of years, without controlled breeding. As cats found opportunities for food and shelter among humans, they naturally became a part of the environment in settlements.

Their increasing presence and interaction with humans influenced their naming and perception. Cats began to be carried along ancient land and sea trade routes by prehistoric human populations, contributing to their spread across different regions.

Cats as Companions

Domestic cats, a popular choice among household cats and other domestic animals, including adult cats and few cats, only became common indoor-only pets predominantly in the last 60 to 70 years.

Advancements like refrigeration, kitty litter, and spaying/neutering facilitated this shift for cat owners. Despite being domesticated, most cats retain their independence for essential needs like food and mating, a trait that adds to their unique charm, setting them apart from domestic dogs.

Cats have not undergone significant physical changes…

Interestingly, cats have not undergone significant physical changes since their domestication, and they are still well-adapted to outdoor living. The ‘slow blink’ between cats and humans, suggesting positive emotions, is a testament to the strong bonding that has emerged with cats as companions. This enduring bond further solidified their place in our homes and hearts, influencing their perception and naming.

Cats in World Cultures

Cats have held a prominent place in various cultures around the world, further influencing their naming. Around the 1600s, the term ‘cat’ was expanded to encompass not just domestic cats, but also big felines such as lions and tigers, reflecting their shared traits and the fascination humans have had for these graceful creatures.

An illustration of cats in ancient Egyptian society
An illustration of cats in ancient Egyptian society

In ancient societies, cats were often associated with the Divine or mystical elements, embodying various concepts and characteristics. These cultural narratives significantly influenced the naming and perception of cats, enhancing their allure and mystery.

Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, cats held a special place. They were venerated and associated with several deities such as Mafdet, Bastet, and Sekhmet, embodying concepts of justice, fertility, and power. All domestic cats, including the female cat, are descended from a single subspecies, Felis silvestris lybica, which originated in the Middle East.

Around 1500 B.C, a second lineage of domesticated cats, known for their sociability and tameness, spread from Egypt into the Mediterranean and most of the Old World. This widespread adoption of many cats further reinforced the domestication and naming of domestic cats, resonating with their revered status in ancient Egyptian society.

European Folklore

In European folklore, cats often held divine or mystical significance. They were considered companions and guardians of the Great Goddess, reflecting the cat’s elevated status in mythological hierarchies. Their associations with fertility, sexuality, and birth helped shape perceptions of their mysterious and alluring nature.

Popular culture’s depiction of cats, like ‘Salem’, perpetuates their historical and mystical allure, echoing folklore narratives.

Feline Characteristics and Naming Influences

An illustration of feline physical features and behaviors
An illustration of feline physical features and behaviors

Understanding the physical and behavioral characteristics of cats provides more insights into their naming. Cats display a myriad of distinctive traits that have endeared them to people and possibly affected the development of the term ‘cat’.

From fur texture and eye shape to agility and hunting skills, each attribute contributes to our perception of these mesmerizing creatures. Their unique behavioral traits, including grooming habits and independence, further influence our naming conventions and the way we view our feline companions.

Physical Features

Cats are renowned for their unique physical features. Some of their key physical attributes include:

  • Retractable claws and specialized teeth, which are essential tools for hunting and contribute to their survival
  • The structure of their shoulder joints, which grants them exceptional agility
  • The muscular composition of their spinal column, in which also contributes to their agility

These physical features make cats, especially wild cat species, highly skilled hunters and agile creatures, while cats remain true to their natural instincts.

The retractable nature of a cat’s claws, as well as the importance of their tail for balance and communication, might have played a role in the naming of the animal. Similarly, the ability to purr, a unique sound produced by a specialized pad in their vocal cords, may have contributed to their endearing name.

NOTE

The agility of cats, demonstrated in competitions such as navigating courses, may have inspired the name “cat.”

Behavioral Traits

Cats possess a range of behavioral traits that have shaped human perception and naming practices. Some of these traits include:

  • Solitary hunting behavior
  • Social behavior and ability to form close-knit groups
  • Territorial behavior, such as burying waste
  • Range of vocalizations for communication

These traits have been influential in the human perception and eventual naming of the animal.

The silent and stealthy movement of cats, due to being digitigrade walkers, is a behavioral characteristic that likely caught human attention. Strong territorial and reproductive behaviors observed in tomcats contribute to the rugged independence associated with male cats.

Cats also demonstrate intelligence and a trainable nature in agility competitions, which may have been attributes considered during the naming process. Finally, the appealing visual traits of cats, such as large eyes and a snub face, may have elicited nurturing responses from humans, leading to the adoption and naming of kittens.

The Influence of “Cat” on Popular Culture

An illustration representing cats in literature and media
An illustration representing cats in literature and media

The term “cat” and its various connotations hold a significant place in literature, music, and media. The term ‘pussycats’ is commonly found in literature and folklore, reflecting the impact of the term “cat” on popular culture.

From classic novels and fairy tales to contemporary literature and music, the term “cat” and the various attributes it represents have been woven into the fabric of our cultural narratives. The mysterious, alluring, and independent nature of cats, reflected in these narratives, further enriches the cultural significance of the term “cat”.

Literary References

Cats have featured prominently in classic and contemporary literature. Iconic feline characters include:

  • Puss-in-Boots
  • Alonzo in ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’
  • Behemoth in ‘The Master and Margarita’
  • The mischievous characters in ‘The Tale of Tom Kitten’
  • The Cat in the Hat

These characters are emblematic of the feline presence in literature, often portrayed as pet cats.

Contemporary literature continues this tradition with notable cat characters, such as Buttercup in ‘The Hunger Games Trilogy’, Koko in ‘The Cat Who…’ series, and the philosophical Cheshire Cat in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. Cats have also made their mark in film adaptations, with Holly Golightly’s cat named Cat in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and the songs ‘Beautiful Ghosts’ and ‘Macavity’ from the movie ‘Cats’ based on T.S. Eliot’s poems.

Anthromorphized cats play a significant role in fairy tales such as ‘The White Cat’, propelling the narrative and enriching the story.

Music and Media

The term ‘cat’ has been a popular motif in music, symbolizing various attributes of the animal as well as metaphorically representing human characteristics. Songs like:

  • ‘Stray Cat Strut’ by the Stray Cats
  • ‘Cool for Cats’ by Squeeze
  • ‘Phenomenal Cat’ by The Kinks
  • ‘Three Cool Cats’ by The Coasters

The use of ‘cat’ in their titles or themes signifies a sense of independence, style, and poise.

Other songs, such as ‘Year of the Cat’ by Al Stewart, ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ by Harry Chapin, and ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ by Tom Jones, illustrate how ‘cat’ can metaphorically denote mystery, allure, childhood, innocence, and playful charm.

The song ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ by Ted Nugent demonstrates the broad scope of how feline qualities are embraced and expressed in popular music, associating ‘cat’ with wildness and sexual energy.

Alternative Names for Cats

An illustration of cats with diverse names from different cultures
An illustration of cats with diverse names from different cultures

Given the diverse characteristics and cultural significance of cats, it is no surprise that they have been given a variety of names around the world. From names reflecting their physical traits to those symbolizing their personalities, these alternative names offer a fascinating insight into the myriad ways humans perceive and interact with cats.

The names we give our cats often reflect our affection for them and their unique traits. Names like ‘Leo,’ short for leopard or lion, ‘Cinder’ for darker colored cats, and ‘Pearl’ for precious white ones, mirror the characteristics of the cats. Exotic names for cats include ‘Kameko,’ a term used in Japan for a superior creature, and ‘Phoenix,’ symbolizing rebirth and immortality, further showcasing the diverse ways we name our feline friends.

Global Variations

Around the globe, cats are given unique and exotic names that reflect their distinct characteristics and symbolism. The names ‘Guinevere’ and ‘Morgan le Fey’ from Arthurian legend, ‘Siri,’ meaning tiger, and ‘katana,’ analogous to a sharp Japanese sword, are examples of global variations in cat naming conventions.

Names such as ‘Athena,’ borrowed from the Greek goddess of wisdom and strategy, ‘Luna,’ Latin for Moon, and ‘Kamilah,’ translating to ‘perfect’ in Egyptian, exemplify how linguistic origins and cultural symbolism contribute to the selection of distinctive cat names. These names not only reflect the cats’ traits but also express the cultural context of their naming.

Nicknaming Practices

Nicknaming practices for cats are as diverse as the cats themselves. Cats are often named based on their perceived personal traits, such as:

  • ‘Raven’ for a mysterious allure
  • ‘Storm’ for a tumultuous personality
  • ‘Phoenix’ for resilience
  • ‘Saber’ for bravery
  • ‘Lotus’ for serenity
  • ‘Avalanche’ for a dynamic nature

Creative nicknames like ‘Christmas’ and ‘Angel’ showcase owners’ affection or mark significant times, while names such as ‘Griffin’ may denote a cat’s regal and mythical nature. Gender-specific nicknames such as ‘tom’ or ‘tomcat’ for males, and ‘queen’ or ‘molly’ for females, highlight historical naming practices for cats. These nicknames are a testament to the enduring bond between humans and cats, reflecting the affection, respect, and fascination we hold for our feline friends.

Summary

In conclusion, the journey of understanding why cats are called “cats” is as intriguing and complex as the creatures themselves. From ancient linguistic roots and early domestication to cultural narratives and popular culture, the term “cat” carries a rich tapestry of history and significance. As we continue to share our lives with these fascinating creatures, their names and the stories they tell will continue to evolve and enrich our bond with our feline friends.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are cats called cats?

Cats are called cats because the English word “cat” originated from the Late Latin word “cattus,” which may have derived from an unidentified African language. This term has been in use since the 6th century.

What were cats originally called?

The domestic cat was originally classified as Felis catus by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758, but recent studies suggest that it should be regarded as a sub-species of the Wildcat, known as Felis sylvestris catus.

Why do they call people Cat?

The term “cat” can be used to describe a person who is spiteful or who enjoys jazz music.

Are cats domesticated?

Based on recent evidence and genetic studies, cats are considered to be semi-domesticated. The domestication of cats is believed to have occurred around 7500 BC in the Near East.

What role did cats play in ancient Egypt?

Cats played a significant role in ancient Egypt, being venerated and associated with several deities, embodying concepts of justice, fertility, and power. This demonstrates the high regard in which cats were held in ancient Egyptian society.

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