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What is the literal meaning of "let the cat out of the bag"? Why would someone put their cat in a bag? What did the cat ever do to them?

  • By "actual meaning", do you mean the literal meaning rather than the actual meaning? – snailplane Jan 3 '14 at 9:49
  • yes,please tell me. – Girish K Jan 3 '14 at 9:57
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    I think cats were chosen in this idiom because they are so difficult to put back into bags after you let them out. – Peter Shor Jan 4 '14 at 4:50
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Evidently, only a shyster puts a cat in a bag – honest business people put in piglets.

The Phrase Finder (a handy resource for learning about the origin of idioms) says:

One [suggested origin] relates to the fraud of substituting a cat for a piglet at markets. If you let the cat out of the bag you disclosed the trick - and avoided buying a pig in a poke (bag). This form of trickery is long alluded to in the language and 'pigs in a poke' are recorded as early as 1530.

The same website also explains:

A poke is a sack or bag. It has a French origin as 'poque' and, like several other French words, its diminutive is formed by adding 'ette' or 'et' - hence 'pocket' began life with the meaning 'small bag'. A pig that's in a poke might turn out to be no pig at all. If a merchant tried to cheat by substituting a lower value animal, the trick could be uncovered by letting the cat out of the bag.

The Phrase Finder also list a second possible origin of cat (that of a cat o'nine tails), but it calls that theory the more dubious of the two.


Many phrases stick around long after their origins seem quaintly outdated. In fact, I'm looking forward to explaining to my grandchildren what “sounds like a broken record” means:

Back when I was your age – before there were iTunes cards, before there were CDs – we would walk to the record store, and buy our music on these big, black vinyl disks that we'd carry home under our arm. If we weren't careful with them, one might get a scratch, so when it was played on the turntable, it would “skip”, and play:

I'll never dance with an... I'll never dance with an... I'll never dance with an...

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  • What's a "turntable"? :-) – Jay Jan 3 '14 at 17:39
  • BTW Not to question your etymology here -- I have no idea -- but etymologies of such colorful idioms are often highly debatable. I've seen many conflicting stories for the origins of many phrases. For example, I saw one explanation of the phrase "the whole nine yards" that explained that in Medieval times cloth was normally sold on 9-yard rolls, so "the whole nine yards" was the entire roll. I saw another that equally confidently said it came from World War 2 when ammunition for machine guns came on a 9-yard belt. Etc. – Jay Jan 3 '14 at 17:42
  • I'm just waiting for someone to ask me why the icon for saving a file to a thumb drive is a square with a circle in the middle. What's that supposed to be? – Jay Jan 3 '14 at 17:44
  • @Jay - It's not my etymology here, it's The Phrase Finder's. I'm just the messenger. The blue letters in my answer link to the page where I've pulled the quoted information from. If you read that entry in its entirety, I think you'll notice that they, like you, seem cautious about being dogmatic about the origins of idioms. We can trace published usages with certainty, but anything beyond that inevitably has some degree of speculation. As for turntables, I realize that my grandchildren will ask plenty of follow-on questions; I've only given my abridged version of the story here. :^) – J.R. Jan 3 '14 at 20:10
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It is just a phrase. Also, pets are often carried around in handbags. It's a matter of interpretation. The phrase itself means "letting out a secret". Carrying a cat in a bag would be a secret. And letting it out would be giving away the secret.

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Let the cat out of the bag is an idiom.

From Wiktionary,

to let the cat out of the bag
1. (idiomatic) To disclose a secret; to let a secret be known, often inadvertently.
    It was going to be a surprise party until someone let the cat out of the bag.

Another similar idiom (also listed in that Wiktionary's page) is spill the beans.

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