Idiom: In the catbird seat (antedating 1916)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jan 9 10:22:51 UTC 2011

In the catbird seat

This phrase is in the OED, HDAS and many other slang dictionaries. The
World Wide Words website has a page about the saying, and so does the
Phrase Finder website. Wikipedia has an entry for the idiom.

All of the references I have examined cite the classic 1942 short
story by James Thurber titled "The Catbird Seat" as the first known
appearance in print of the expression. The work appeared in the
November 14, 1942 issue of the New Yorker. Here is the relevant OED

catbird, n.
2. Phr. the catbird seat: a superior or advantageous position. U.S. slang.

Michael Quinion notes an association with poker:

Red Barber said in the Saturday Review in 1958 that he first heard it
during a game of penny-ante poker while he was in Cincinnati,
presumably sometime in the 1930s, and borrowed it for his radio

The 1916 citation below uses the phrase in the domain of poker. The
author describes a series of occasions where he thinks laughter is

Cite: 1916, Report of the Thirty-Third Annual Session of the Georgia
Bar Association, Held at Tybee Island Georgia June 1-3, 1916,
Interesting and Humorous Experiences at the Bar: Paper by Roland Ellis
of Macon, Page 180, J.W. Burke Company, Macon, Georgia. (Google Books
full view)

Or, to chuckle like a loser at 2 A. M. in the catbird seat as he
squeezes an ace-high flush, to have the stenographer of the member of
the court of review assigned your cause, hand you the lemon of an
unread record, as he headnotes the information that the discretion of
the bonehead below "will not be disturbed."

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list