By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Curiosity killed the cat’ is a well-known phrase that is found repeatedly in English (and Anglophone) literature. The meaning of ‘curiosity killed the cat’ is easy to summarise: don’t go poking your nose into other people’s affairs, and don’t be overly inquisitive about things which don’t concern you, as it will only cause trouble.
The phrase suggests that a cat that went nosing about in something it shouldn’t have came a-cropper and died as a result.
However, the phrase began life quite differently. ‘Curiosity killed the fact’ is a surprisingly recent phrase, but ‘care killed the cat’ – a phrase with a subtly, but importantly different meaning – has a much longer, and older, pedigree.
Care Killed the Cat
‘Care killed the cat’ is found as early as 1598, in Ben Jonson’s city comedy, Every Man in His Humour. In that play, we find the line: ‘Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a cat, up-tails all, and a louse for the hangman.’
Shakespeare is thought to have played the part of Kno’well, the aged father in the first production of Jonson’s play, and he may have remembered Jonson’s use of ‘care killed the cat’ when writing his play Much Ado about Nothing, which is thought to have been performed the following year. In Much Ado, Claudio says, ‘What, courage man! what though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.’
In both these instances, ‘care’ means ‘worry’ or ‘sorrow’, as it often does in Shakespeare’s plays of the time (compare King Henry IV’s opening lines from 1 Henry IV: ‘So shaken as we are, so wan with care’). So the meaning is clearly different here: it is worry or sorrow that killed the cat, rather than its meddling nose. Of course, it’s possible that it’s not the cat’s care that is the cause of the trouble, but its human owner’s: in other words, worrying excessively about something may lead you to cause harm to those around you.
But this isn’t apparent from the phrase ‘care killed the cat’, and it’s impossible, some four centuries later, to know for sure what the phrase was meant to denote. Although cats were much-maligned in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, partly because of their associations with witchcraft and black magic (black cats especially, of course), they obviously had their uses when it came to ridding households of rodents and other vermin.
And it’s clear that the killing of the cat in both Jonson’s and Shakespeare’s use of the expression ‘care killed the cat’ (or ‘care will kill a cat’) is viewed as something to be avoided.
However, it’s probably more likely that the phrase referred to the cat’s actions, rather than a human’s actions upon it; and a clue to what the original phrase may have meant can be found in George Wither’s 1635 book A Collection of Emblems, Ancient and Modern, where he writes of the proverbial cat hunting mice: ‘he cannot be content to slaughter them / but hee must also playe / and Sport his woefull prisoners’ lives away’.
So, if we take ‘care’ to mean worrying and taking time fretting over something rather than just getting on and taking decisive action, then the thing that may ‘kill’ the cat is failing to kill its prey while it had the chance. And then, perhaps, being killed either out of starvation (because its dinner got away) or from being cast out by its owner, dissatisfied with its mousing skills?
Curiosity Killed the Cat
So when did ‘curiosity killed the cat’ take over as the cat-killing expression or phrase of choice – and why? It had certainly come into being by the second half of the nineteenth century: James Allan Mair’s 1873 book A handbook of proverbs: English, Scottish, Irish, American, Shakesperean, and scriptural; and family mottoes lists ‘curiosity killed the cat’ as a familiar phrase, with an ‘I.’ next to it to suggest that the phrase is Irish in origin.
This is perfectly possible, especially as the phrase seems to have really taken off in the United States, where it was perhaps introduced by Irish immigrants in the second half of the nineteenth century. The prolific short-story writer O. Henry, in his 1909 story ‘Schools and Schools’, wrote: ‘Curiosity can do more things than kill a cat; and if emotions, well recognized as feminine, are inimical to feline life, then jealousy would soon leave the whole world catless.’
Curiously (as it were), although the Oxford English Dictionary is keen to point out that there is no link between the English word ‘care’ and the Latin word cura (meaning ‘care’), the word ‘curiosity’ ultimately derives from the Latin cūriōsus meaning ‘full of care or pains, careful, assiduous, inquisitive’.
So here, the words ‘curious’ and ‘inquisitive’ are related to ‘full of care’, although ‘care’ here refers as much to taking care as it does to feeling grief or sorrow.
In conclusion, the phrase ‘curiosity killed the cat’ appears to have been a mutation of a far earlier expression, ‘care killed a cat’, meaning that excessive worry rather than inquisitiveness will lead to harm. The phrase seems to have changed in the nineteenth century, when ‘curiosity killed the cat’ became established as the more famous expression.