fun with phrases

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Oct 12 14:16:48 UTC 2011

On Sep 28, 2011, at 8:22 PM, Baker, John wrote:

>        Snopes says that the superstition that cats can suck the breath from a baby goes back at least to 1607 (though it doesn't give the cite), so an association with the lamia seems possible but speculative at best.

Just came across it again in Hemingway's _A Moveable Feast_ (1964: 197).  Definitely real cats, with one variation on their supposed babycidal practices.  The scene is in Paris, late 1920s.

There were no baby-stiiters then and Bumby [Hemingway and first wife Hadley's baby] would stay happy in his tall cage bed with his big, loving cat named F. Puss. There were people who said that it was dangerous to leave a cat with a baby. The most ignorant and prejudiced said that a cat would suck a baby's breath and kill him. Others said that a cat would lie on a baby and the cat's weight wold smother him. F. Puss lay beside Bumby in the tall cage bed and watched the door with his big yellow eyes and would let no one come near him when we were out and Marie, the femme de menage, had to be away. There was no need for baby-sitters. F. Puss was the baby-sitter.
[F. Puss comes off much wiser and more reliable in the memoir than F. Scott]


>        I never understood the superstition to be about witches or witches' familiars.  It's about real cats.
> John Baker
> -----Original Message-----
> From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of Joel S. Berson
> Sent: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 7:16 PM
> Subject: Re: fun with phrases
> Does "suck the air out of" together with cats go
> back to the lamia?  (Lamia itself is a1382.)  A
> lamia being a woman who sucks the blood of
> children, witches appearing as cats, cats sucking air out of infants?
> Joel
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

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