The Origins of the "Cat"

The Origins of the

Our English word "cat" doesn't seem to have come into general usage until around 300 A.D. give or take a few decades or so.

It is interesting to note that several of the world's languages call this animal by a name very similar to the English words "cat" or "puss" (which itself is believed to have derived from the name of the ancient Egyptian goddess Pasht, a cat-headed deity who was considered a darker manifestation of Bast; a.k.a. Bastet, acknowledged as the Mother of ALL cats and a goddess we'll return to later).

For instance, all the following examples are the words for the creature we call "cat":

French = Chat

Welsh = Cath

Arabic = Kitt

Polish = Kot

Syrian = Kato

Sanskrit = Puccha

Persia = Pushak

Italian = Gatto

Spanish = Gato

Lithuanian = Puize

German = Katze

Russian = Kots

Irish = Pus

CAT is properly the name of the well-known domesticated feline animal usually termed by naturalists Fehis domestica, but in a wider sense employed to denote all the more typical members of the family Felidae. According to the New English Dictionary, although the origin of the word cat is unknown, yet the name is found in various languages as far back as they can be traced. In. old Western Germanic it occurs, for instance, so early as from AD. 400 to 450; in Old High German it is chazza or catero, and in Middle German kattaro. Both in Gaelic and in old French it is cat, although sometimes taking the form of chater in the latter; the Gaelic designation of the European wild cat being cat fiadhaich. In Welsh and Corriish the name is cath. If Martials cattae refer to this animal, the earliest Latin use of the name dates from the 1st century of our era. In the work of Palladius on agriculture, dating from about the year A.D. 350, reference is made to an animal called catus or cattus, as being useful in cat (Med. Lat. chattus or gattus, chatta or gatta, in Fr. chat or chatchasteil) was a movable pent-house used to protect besiegers when approaching a wall or gateway, for the purpose of sapping, mining or direct attack, or to cover a ram or other battering-engine. The word is also sometimes applied to a heavy timber fitted with iron spikes or projections to be thrown down upon besiegers, and to the large work known as a cavalier.

Cat or cat-head, in nautical usage, is the projecting beam on the bows of a ship used to clear the anchor from the sides of the vessel when weighed. The stock of the anchor rests on the cat-head when hung outside the ship. The name is also used of a type of a vessel, now obsolete, and formerly used in the coal and timber trade on the north-east coast of England; it had a deep waist and narrow stem; it is still applied to a small rig of sailing boats, with a single mast stepped far forward, with a fore and aft sail. Among other objects also known by the name of cat is the small piece of wood pointed at either end used in the game of tip-cat, and the instrument of punishment, generally known as the cat 0 nine tails. This consists of a handle of wood or rope, about 18 in. long, with nine knotted cords or thongs. The multiplication of thongs for purposes of flogging is found in the old Roman flagellum, a scourge, which had sometimes three thongs with bone or bronze knots fastened to them.

The cat was the regular instrument with which floggings were performed in the British army and navy. Since the abolition of flogging in the services, the use of the cat is now restricted to certain classes of offenders in military prisons (Army Act 1881, 133). In the English criminal law, where corporal punishment is ordered by the court for certain criminal offences, the cat is used only where the prisoner is over sixteen years of age. It may not be used except when actually ordered in the sentence, and must be of a pattern approved by a secretary of state. Further floggings are inflicted with the cat upon convicted prisoners for breaches of discipline in prison. They must be ordered by the visitors of the prison and confirmed by the home secretary.

As for the Egyptians, they called the creature Mau, meaning "to see." No doubt the name also made onomatopoetic reference to the cat's familiar meowing. No one really knows for certain, but it is believed that the cat may have been domesticated by these ancient Egyptians 4,000 to 5,000 years ago; relatively recent when you consider that the dog has been a companion to humans for 20,000 years, perhaps even longer. Some experts theorize that this human/dog relationship may have been going on as long as 50,000 years. As a result, the cat has retained many of its natural instincts and behaviors, having only been among humans a short while, whereas dogs have evolved right alongside us for quite some time now.

This usage, coupled with the existence of a distinct term in Gaelic for the wild species, leaves little doubt that the word cat properly denotes only the domesticated species. This is confirmed by the employment in Byzantine Greek of the term Kfirrol or Karra to designate domesticated cats brought from Egypt. It should be added that the atxovpos of the Greeks, frequently translated by the older writers as cat, really refers to the marten-cat, which appears to have been partially domesticated by the ancients and employed for mousing.

As regards the origin of the domesticated cats of western Europe, it is well known that the ancient Egyptians were in the habit of domesticating (at least in some degree) the Egyptian race of the African wild cat (Felis ocreata maniculata), and also of embalming its remains, of which vast numbers have been found in tombs in Egypt. These Egyptian cats are generally believed by naturalists to have had a large share in the parentage of the European breeds, which have, however, in many cases been crossed to a greater or less extent with the European wild cat.

One of the features by which the Egyptian differs from the European wild cat is the longer and less bushy tail; and it has been very generally considered that the same feature is characteristic of European domesticated cats. According, however, to Dr E. Hamilton, the measurement of a number of tails of the European wild cat and of the domestic cat gives a range between II in. and 141/2 in., the longer length being quite as often found in the wild cats as in the domestic. The bushy appearance depends entirely on the length of the fur, and accords with the thick fur of the rest of the body of the wild cat, while in the domestic race the fur both on the body and tail is thinner and softer.

Possibly those domesticated cats with unusually short and bushy tails may have a larger share of European wild-cat blood; while, conversely, such wild cats as show long tails may have a cross of domesticated blood. The favorite haunts of the wild cat are mountain forests where masses or rocks or cliffs are interspersed with trees, the crevices in these rocks or the hollow trunks of trees affording sites for the wild cats lair, where its young are produced and reared.

More importance was attached by Dr A. Nehring of Berlin to the color of the soles of the hind-feet as a means of determining the relationship of the domesticated cat of Europe. According to his observations, in the Egyptian wild cat the pads of the toes are wholly black, while the black extends back either continuously or in long stripes as far as the calcaneum or heel-bone. In the European wild cat, on the other hand, the black is limited to a small round spot on the pads, while the color of the hair as far back as the heel-bone is yellowish or yellowish-grey. Since in all domesticated cats retaining the coloring of the wild species the soles of the, hind-feet correspond in this particular with the Egyptian rather than with the European wild cat, the presumption is in favor of their descent from the former rather than from the latter.

Later, Dr Nehring came to the conclusion that the domesticated cat has a dual parentage, one stock coming from south-eastern Asia and the other from north-eastern Africa; in other words, from a domesticated Chinese cat (itself derived from a wild Chinese species) on the one hand, and from the Egyptian cat on the other. The ordinary domesticated cats of Europe are, however, mainly of African origin, although they have largely crossed, especially in Germany with the wild cat. The same author was likewise of opinion that the domestication or taming of various species of wild cats took place chiefly among nationalities of stationary or non-nomadic habits who occupied themselves with agricultural pursuits, since it. Would be of vital importance that their stores of grain should be adequately protected from the depredations of rats and mice.

The foregoing opinion as to the dual parentage of our domesticated cats receives support from observations made many years ago. According to these observations, two distinct types of so-called tabby cats are recognizable. In the one the pattern consists of narrow vertical stripes, and in the other of longitudinal or obliquely longitudinal stripes, which, on the sides of the body, tend to assume a spiral or sub-circular arrangement characteristic of the blotched tabby. This latter type appears to be the true tabby ; since that word denotes a pattern like that of watered silk. One or other of these types is to be found in cats of almost all breeds, whether Persian, short-haired or Manx; and there appear to be no intermediate stages between them.

Cats of the striped type are no doubt descended from the European and North African wild cats; but the origin of cats exhibiting the blotched pattern appears to be unknown. As it was to a cat of the latter kind that Linnaeus gave the name of Felis catus, Pocock urges that this title is not available for the European wild cat, which he would call Felis sylvestris. Without accepting this proposed change in nomenclature, which is liable to lead to confusion without any coInpensating advantage, it may be suggested that the blotched tabby type represents Dr Nehrings presumed Chinese element in the cats parentage, and that the missing wild stock may be one of the numerous phases of the leopard-cat (F. bengalensis), in some of which an incipient spiral arrangement of the markings may be noticed on the shoulder.

In zoological classification cats belong to the Class: Mammalia (mammals - hair covered animals that suckle their young with breast milk), the Order : Carnivora (they are carnivores - they eat meat) and the Family: Felidae. Within this family there are three further subdivisions called genera (Panthera (cats that roar), Acinonyx (the Cheetah) and Felis (all other "small" cats)), and each genus contains individual species. A species of cats is a group that normally breeds and produces fertile offspring (see section on DNA below) Wild cats inhabit all parts of the world except the extreme Arctic and Antarctic regions, Australia and the wastelands of the tundra where there is no tree cover for prey.

As to the introduction of domesticated cats into Europe, the opinion is very generally held that tame cats from Egypt were imported at a relatively early date into Etruria by Phoenician traders; and there is decisive evidence that these animals were established in Italy long before the Christian era. The progeny of these cats, more or less crossed with the indigenous species, thence gradually spread over Europe, to become mingled at some period, according to Dr Nehrings hypothesis, with an Asiatic stock. The earliest written record of the introduction of domesticated cats into Great Britain dates from about A.D. 936, when Hywel Dda, prince of South Wales, enacted a law for their protection. The Romans, writes Dr Hamilton, were probably the original introducers of this cat, and as the final evacuation of Britain by that nation took place under the emperor Valentinian about A.D. 436, the period of its introduction may certainly be dated some 500 years previous to the Welsh chronicle and even much earlier. It is added that the remains of cats from Roman villas at Silchester and Dursley are probably referable to the domesticated breed.

Before proceeding to notice some of the different types of domesticated cats, a few lines may be devoted to the wild European species, F. catus. Beyond stating that in color it conforms very closely to the striped phase of domesticated tabby, it will be unnecessary to describe the species. Its geographical range was formerly very extensive, and included Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, Transylvania, Galicia, the Caucasus as far as the Caspian, southern Russia, Italy, Spain, Greece, Rumania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and portions of central and northern Asia. At the present time, observes Dr Hamilton, the wild cat has become almost extinct in many of the above districts.

Examples may perhaps occasionally still be found in the uninhabited forests of Hungary and Transylvania, and occasionally in Spain and Greece, as well as in the Caucasus and in some of the Swiss cantons, but the original race has in most countries interbred with the domestic cat wherever the latter has penetrated. In Great Britain wild cats survive only in some of the Scottish forests, and even there it is difficult to decide whether pure-bred specimens are extant. Remains of the wild cat occur in English caverns; while from those of Ireland (where the wild species has apparently been unknown during the historic period) have been obtained jaws and teeth which it has been suggested are referable to the Egyptian rather than to the European wild cat. Such a determination is, however, extremely hazardous, even if it be admitted that the remains of cats from the rock-fissures of Gibraltar pertain to Fells ocreata.

The word "cat" in languages around the world

Chinesemiu or mau
Egyptianmau or mait
French chat
Germankatti, katze or ket
Greekcatta or kata
Latincattus or felis
Polishkot or gatto
Russiankoshka or kots
Yiddishchatul or gattus