Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts: How Lewis Carroll stole the Cheshire Cat

Wonders, curiosities and found facts. An occasional series exposing the dimly lit recesses of history. In the course of writing books set in various historical periods, I continually come across remarkable incidental details which rarely make it into the books. Here I bring them out of the margins and explore them in more depth.

Today: Cheshire Cats, with bonus British imperialism!


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“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!”

(Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

The Cheshire Cat is one of the most memorable characters in a book which is largely famous for its memorable characters. The Cat’s grin has become part of the language – to “grin like a Cheshire Cat” is a stock expression, with or without vanishing. But, as with the madness of hatters, Lewis Carroll didn’t actually invent the Cheshire Cat – at least, not all of it – though you wouldn’t guess that from the book, in which Alice has clearly never heard the expression:

“Please could you tell me,” said Alice, a little timidly, for she was not quite sure whether it was good manners for her to speak first, “why your cat grins like that?”

“It’s a Cheshire-Cat,” said the Duchess, “and that’s why.”

“I didn’t know that Cheshire-Cats always grinned; in fact, I didn’t know that cats could grin.”

“They all can,” said the Duchess; “and most of ’em do.”

NPG P7(26), Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)

Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 1832–1898) in June 1857 (source: Wikipedia)

In fact, “grinning like a Cheshire cat” had been around for at least eighty years when Carroll wrote this story in 1865, as a curiously obscure piece of slang which puzzled lexicographers even then. Where does it come from, and why? I stumbled across it while looking in an early 19th century slang dictionary for a reference to the early days of the Chelsea military hospital, where “to get Chelsea” appears alongside “Cheese toaster” (a sword) and “Cheshire-cat”. I decided to look further, and found a mystery.

The earliest citation in the OED is from 1770–1819 in a satirical poem by John Wolcot (1738–1819), who wrote under the pseudonym Peter Pindar. “A Lyric Epistle to Lord Macartney”, written 1792, was an epic swipe at George Macartney, 1st Earl Macartney (1737–1806), diplomat, British Ambassador to China, and coiner (in 1773) of the notion that the British Empire was “this vast empire on which the sun never sets”.*

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John Wolcot, alias Peter Pindar (source: Wikipedia)

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1st Earl Macartney (source: Wikipedia)

 The poem’s last stanza addresses Macartney’s China-bound mission, which began that year (1792):

Yet, if successful, thou wilt be adored:

Lo, like a Cheshire Cat our Court will grin

(The embassy was not successful; Macartney refused to kowtow to the Chinese emperor, they failed to understand each other, and the hoped-for trade agreements were stillborn.)

But what did it mean? Why a cat, and why from Cheshire in particular?

There is a slightly earlier usage, in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (where I first stumbled upon it) by the soldier, antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731–1791). This volume was first published in 1785, and includes this definition:

Cheshire Cat. He grins like a Cheshire cat; said of any one who shews his teeth and gums in laughing.

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Francis Grose (source: Wikipedia)

Grose gives us no idea of where the phrase originated, an no earlier examples have been found. Lexicographers of slang were continually puzzled by the origin of the Cheshire Cat, which in its day competed with some even odder expressions. Writing in the Newcastle Magazine in July 1828, one author pondered the popularity of the phrases “squint like a bag of nails”, “grin like a basket of chips”, as well as “grin like a Cheshire cat”. “This particularizing of the cat’s locality is odd,” the author wrote. “We should like to know what is there that is remarkable about a cat from any part of the British empire?”

In a letter written in 1808, the essayist Charles Lamb (1775–1834) hazarded a guess: “Why do cats grin in Cheshire?—Because it was once a county palatine, and the cats cannot help laughing whenever they think of it, though I see no great joke in it.”** – a line Lewis Carroll himself might have written.

It’s possible that the original Cheshire cat wasn’t a cat at all – in the 18th century “cat” was slang for both a spiteful woman and a prostitute. Also, to “shoot (or whip) the cat” meant to vomit, which might be connected humorously with grinning. But again, why Cheshire?

A further possibility is the legendary (at the time) fondness of rats for Cheshire cheese, as celebrated in this poem from 1787, “The rat who had retired from the World”, written by “a Lady":

Tir’d of the noisy joys of life,

Where hope and fear are still at strife,

A Rat within a Cheshire cheese

Retir’d to mortify at ease

And wherever one finds rats, one may find happy cats: “Gainst all the perjur’d race of Cats / Vile murth’rers of us harmless Rats” as the same poet has it. According to 18th century ratcatcher Robert Smith (“ratcatcher to the Princess Amelia”),*** in his Universal Directory for Taking Alive and Destroying Rats (1772), “some pieces of strong old Cheshire cheese” made a favourite lure. A Cheshire cat might be a happy hunter indeed.

Carroll must have grown up with this puzzling phrase, although it must have been rare and quaint in his day, and rather than inventing it, merely purloined it from the mouths of rustics, repurposed it and added the curiosity of the Cat’s disappearing trick. And so a strange and quite obscure phrase which would surely have faded into invisibility just like the eponymous feline became rooted in the modern language. All thanks to literature.

… Now, which one of us is going to bring back “squinting like a bag of nails”?



* Though Macartney was first to apply this epithet to the British Empire, he didn’t invent the notion. It had been said previously about various empires, the earliest known instance being the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century.

**A county palatine was a county with special autonomy within the kingdom. Cheshire was one such, as were Shropshire, Kent, the Isle of Ely, and Pembroke.

*** Princess Amelia (1711–1786) was second daughter of King George II.

© Jeremy Dronfield 2017