I am reading "Joy in the Morning" by P. G. Wodehouse. Around the begining of chapter 3 the following comparison is used: "He spun round with a sort of guilty bound, like an adagio dancer surprised while watering the cat's milk."

It refers to a man suddenly being greeted from behind by a friend while in a jeweller's shop on supposedly delicate buisness.

I don't understand the comparison, which has even been cided, not only in the web, as a particulary witty one. "Adagio dancer" here seems to refer to a kind of acrobat that performs with a partner, one of the two being held in the air in various poses. I have no idea what milk has to do with it. I can't find an expression like "to water the cat's milk" because all I get on google are discussions on whether to give milk to cats. Can someone enlighten me and explain what the comparison means in literal detail? Thank you in advance.

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    watering the milk would be to dilute it with water, to "thin" it. When it involves the cat, it could be done for the sake of being thrifty, though the cat might not appreciate it. Milk sellers were sometimes accused of diluting the milk with water, in order to turn a larger profit on it. The implication is that he spun around as though he had been caught in a guilty act, but of a venial nature. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 3 '18 at 14:28

Wodehouse was a very idiosyncratic stylist, well attuned to slight subtleties in colloquial English and the absurd generally. Half the fun in reading him is to watch him play games with the English language.

"Like an adagio dancer" means that it was not a movement that appeared at all natural.

Imagining someone doing a complex vigorous dance while pouring milk is an absurd concatenation of ideas.

"Watering milk" is to cheat by diluting milk with water. I think it was Thoreau who said that circumstantial evidence could be convincing as when you find a trout in the milk.

A cat does not drink much milk in human terms so watering it would be dishonesty on a scale so petty as to embarrass a hardened criminal.

It is figurative language, on figurative language, on figurative language.

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  • Sherlock Holmes used the "trout in the milk" phrase, but I don't know if it came from a previous source. – K.A.Monica Jan 3 '18 at 23:25
  • I did not bother to look up the source when I wrote my answer, but relied on memory (not always safe). Google seems to believe that the source was Thoreau. Given that Conan Doyle was only 3 when Thoreau died, I think we can be relatively confident that Thoreau did not plagiarize Conan Doyle. I wonder if one of the movies made about Holmes may have lifted the line; movie writers do that sort of thing. – Jeff Morrow Jan 3 '18 at 23:36
  • I did not mean to suggest there was a plagairizm, only that I had read it there. FURTHER UPDATE: I checked the story (The Noble Bachelor) and Holmes does attribute it to Thoreau, you were right. – K.A.Monica Jan 3 '18 at 23:39
  • Thanks for the update. My plagiarism reference was tongue-in-cheek. People can quote without remembering that they are doing so. But in this case, there can be no question because there was attribution. I am a little shocked that Conan Doyle was reading Thoreau; they seem quite disparate personalities. – Jeff Morrow Jan 4 '18 at 0:19

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