The phrase evokes a strange image, and you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking its origin is equally bizarre.
Some have suggested that ancient kings would punish those who displeased them by cutting out their tongues and feeding them to their pet cats. This grisly idea persists in the theory that the phrase came from a time of witch-hunting – where fear and hysteria abounded. Witches, as the stories go, could steal a person’s speech – sometimes by removing the tongue and feeding it to their ‘familiar’, or pet.
Or was it nothing to do with actual cats? Did it emerge on tall ships when sailors would fall silent at the threat of a whipping with a cat o’nine tails?
All these stories, however, have no evidence to support them. Surviving records of the expression do not go very far back in the past at all. Volume 53 of the US publication Ballou’s Monthly Magazine, published in 1881 mentions the phrase as something many children say. It then appears in the 1911 novel Bob Hardwick by Henry Howard Harper.
There is a similar French saying – ‘je jette ma langue au chat’, which means ‘I throw my tongue to the cat’. Rather than berating someone for being silent, however, this is used to express something along the lines of ‘I have nothing to say’.
Unfortunately, ‘cat got your tongue’ sounds like it should have a good origin story, but if so, the explanation has been lost. Like children’s nursery rhymes or fairy tales, the phrase may just be a nonsensical invention.