In Gentle Giant's song Black Cat it starts as follows:

There's a cat prowling through the streets at night

And she's black and her eyes are burning yellow

My question is: although said cat is referred as "she" and then the lyrics keeps it female, "...her eyes..." it doesn't mean it's a female cat, right? My guess is that in folk language "cat" assume the grammatical female gender, although it should be neutral, thus referred as it, according to many books. And, I'm also guessing cats are assumed to be grammatical female because in German we say "Die Katze", and both English and German are Germanic languages.

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    Reading the full lyric it appears to me that the cat is a metaphor for a woman. The subject is unquestionably female, definitely hunting, but her purpose we cannot know. Oct 10, 2021 at 23:55
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    Do not try to generalize from modern German grammar to modern English grammar; both languages have undergone massive changes, including in the case of English two creolizations that have substantially simplified the grammar. Oct 11, 2021 at 4:25
  • Further reading at ELU (the link is to my answer to Why do so many female-specific words and phrases reference cats?, mainly because of the references I cite). This deals with the folk link between cats and femininity, rather than addressing the question directly but might be interesting background
    – Chris H
    Oct 12, 2021 at 8:30
  • yes, absolutely. no doubt about it.
    – neph
    Oct 12, 2021 at 20:55

3 Answers 3


In English, there is no grammatical gender that is different from biological gender.

However, there is a tradition in what you call 'folk language' of referring to unknown cats as female and unknown dogs as male. This reference is the best I could find, though I remember once reading that it was a Victorian convention (to avoid having to do anything as indelicate as inspecting the animal's genitals!)

I also thought of Mrs Chippy, ship's cat of the Endurance, initially assumed to be female.

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    @GabrielSantos When a writer invents a cat, they don't need to inspect its sexual organs to assign it a gender. Oct 9, 2021 at 18:01
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    The "derives from germanic gender" doesn't really hold up. Old English had "catt" (masculine) and "catte" (feminine) which referred to biologically male and female cats respectively. In Old English you have "sē catt" but "seo catte". Old English isn't the same as German. in Old English, cats are not always feminine nouns. Moreover "ship" (commonly feminine in modern English) was neuter in OE.
    – James K
    Oct 9, 2021 at 18:15
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    @JackO'Flaherty I know, Mr O'Flaherty, I just said that for the sake of the argument. But, this prowling cat might be a real cat that used to prowl trhough the streets of Shaftesbury, England, the hometown of Giant's band member and writer of such song, Kerry Minnear. Oct 9, 2021 at 18:16
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    I have to disagree. I think, just from general cat behavior, that the default assumption is that a cat prowling the streets at night is male - a tomcat. So referring to this particular cat as she makes it explicit that she's female, and something of an oddity. The full lyric would seem to fit this interpretation.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 11, 2021 at 4:52
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    The "all dogs are male by default" rule still applies in modern fiction. Go ahead, name a well-known fictional dog that is female and not just the love interest of some other male dog protagonist. Okay, now name one that isn't Lassie (who was usually portrayed by male collies in the show, but whatever). You have to think hard about that one because almost every other fictional dog is male, or some male dog's love interest. Not sure the "all cats are female" rule is quite as widespread as there are plenty of fictional male cats to go around. Oct 11, 2021 at 16:26

This cat is 100% a female.

There are no arbitrarily gendered nouns in English. The personal pronouns "he/she/him/her..." are only used when referring to nouns that are gendered by definition, such as male and female people and animals. There are a couple of rare poetic exceptions to this, like referring affectionately to vehicles as if they are females:

"She's a good ship and she has the right name. You treat her right and she'll always bring you home."

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    Lioness, actress, master, mistress, etc.
    – CJ Dennis
    Oct 10, 2021 at 7:48
  • @CJDennis I've edited my answer to make it explicit what I mean by "no gendered nouns".
    – gotube
    Oct 11, 2021 at 3:07
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    @AakashM Those aren't arbitrary. In every case, the gender of the noun matches the gender of the animal or person. There is no arbitrary gender as in many other languages (for example German where the suffix "-lein" makes the noun neuter, most obviously in "Frauelein").
    – Graham
    Oct 11, 2021 at 9:11
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    @Graham I wasn't talking about the comments, but the answer. "There are no X [...] there are exceptions"
    – AakashM
    Oct 11, 2021 at 14:27
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    @AakashM The exception I noted is poetically calling a ship "she". I don't think you'd say "ship" is a gendered noun.
    – gotube
    Oct 11, 2021 at 20:12

Animals are routinely referred to as "it" if their sex is unknown or the author chooses not to mention it. If this writer has chosen to use "her", it's an explicit indication that it's a female. (I am entirely unfamiliar with the folk tradition that a prior answer refers to; I think a link to references would be in order.)

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    @KateBunting Here's another "folk tradition" reference from a real sociologist: thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/11/09/…
    – MTA
    Oct 10, 2021 at 17:45
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    additional note: people with unknown gender are referred to as "they", or "he or she"; calling a person "it" is very rude
    – user253751
    Oct 11, 2021 at 13:05
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    @user253751 So, if I come across a baby being hold by one of the parents and I wanna ask what's the sex, I should either ask: "Is he a boy or a girl?" or "Is she a boy or a girl?" but never "Is it a boy or a girl?" right? Oct 11, 2021 at 22:41
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    Well, there are certain cases where you can refer to a person as "it". An example would be when you load up Super Mario 64 and he says "It's me, Mario!" Unfortunately I'm not smart enough to figure out what the pattern is for when you can and can't do that. Oct 12, 2021 at 1:48
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    @GabrielSantos - In this instance I'd be tempted to ask: "Is your baby a boy or a girl?"
    – Rounin
    Oct 12, 2021 at 8:53

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