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!
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?”
(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.
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.