a deadly game of cat and mouse

Mon Jan 25 03:16:01 UTC 2010

I'm reasonably confident that in fact the children's game did come first.  Of course, people have been saying "cat and mouse" for centuries, but a Google Books search for "'cat and mouse' + 'game'" doesn't find any figurative uses prior to the following example from Ivors, an 1856 romantic novel by Elizabeth Sewell:
<< I shall see you married to Claude Egerton more willingly than I should to the first Duke in England. But if you don't love him well enough to give up a silly fancy to please him, you had much better say so at once. It will be more the part that I should like my daughter to act, and more befitting the character of a true and sensible woman, than to play the cat and mouse game you have been playing with him lately.>>
There are, however, a number of 19th century references to the literal game, the earliest being in James Holman, Travels through Russia, Siberia, Poland, Austria, Saxony, Prussia, Hanover (1825).  There the game is a Russian game, similar to the one described in Golden Hours in 1878.  The game is also referred to in The Boy's Own Book (1829), where the game is a French game with somewhat different characteristics, and in L. Maria Child, The Girls' Own Book (1833), where it is the circle game previously described, and there are many later references, some of which are stories or memoirs in which the game actually is played.
Since the game seems to have passed largely out of fashion, most contemporary speakers must have in mind only the behavior of a literal cat with a mouse, and not the party game.  In such cases, "deadly" is obviously redundant.
John Baker


From: American Dialect Society on behalf of Jonathan Lighter
Sent: Sun 1/24/2010 11:15 AM
Subject: Re: a deadly game of cat and mouse

Nice work, John. I had no idea.

Despite the primordial treatment of mice by cats, I can't help wondering if
the social  game really is the effective (or co-effective) source of the
cliche'. The relatively late, sequential appearance of both might not have
been predicted.

On Sun, Jan 24, 2010 at 9:31 AM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at att.net> wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
> Subject:      Re: a deadly game of cat and mouse
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> At 1/24/2010 01:29 AM, Baker, John wrote:
> >"Game of cat and mouse," without "deadly," is older, of course; OED
> >has it back to 1887 (under the entry for "cat"), and Wilkie Collins
> >used it in his contribution to The Haunted House (1859).
> >
> >But I never previously realized that this was a literal game.  From
> >the March 1878 issue of Golden Hours, via Google Books:
> I have an unspecific memory of playing this myself as a child!
> And of course it is a literal game to literal cats, who are known to
> bat a live literal mouse around a bit before dispatching it.
> Joel
> >
> >
> ><<The Game of Cat and Mouse.
> >
> >Al.L the players but two join hands in a ring. One is inside, and is
> >called the Mouse, another is outside and is called the Cat.
> >
> >The players begin the game by turning round ihe circle rapidly,
> >raising their arms. The Cat springs in at one side of the ring, and
> >the Mouse jumps out at the other. The players then suddenly lower
> >their arms, so as to keep Ihe Cat in. The Cat goes round and round,
> >trying to get out; and as the circle of players is in motion all the
> >lime, she is sure to find a place to break through at, if she is a
> >sharpsighted Cat. As soon as she gets through, she chases the Mouse,
> >who tries to save herself by getting inside the circle again.
> >
> >To let her in, the players raise their arms. If she gets in without
> >the Cat being able to get in after her, the Cat must pay a forfeit,
> >and try again. Then the players name the other players for the next
> >game,-the new ones fall into a circle, and the game goes on as before.
> >
> >The Cat should be one of the elder children of the party, and the
> >Mouse a younger boy or girl.>>
> >
> >
> >
> >John Baker
>  >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >________________________________
> >
> >From: American Dialect Society on behalf of Jonathan Lighter
> >Sent: Sat 1/23/2010 9:04 PM
> >Subject: a deadly game of cat and mouse
> >
> >
> >
> >Hearing this cliche' on TV for the nth and final time I can stand it just
> >now, I decided to look into the problem.
> >
> >The earliest I could come up with was in Michael O'Malley & Ralph Lane's
> >"Vic Flint"  strip in the _Clovis (N.M.) News-Journal_ of July 11, 1948
> (via
> >Newspaper Archive): "Inside the Crystal Lake Amusement Park a deadly game
> of
> >cat and mouse was in progress."
> >
> >It seems to have taken off almost instantly, though high-class periodicals
> >like the N.Y. Times were slow on the uptake.
> >
> >JL
> >
> >------------------------------------------------------------
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