Catchy Cat idioms and their true meanings

Confused by some of the cat related phrases you have come across in English? You’re not the first. Our feline friends are a truly global phenomena that not only live in our homes, but are also strongly represented in art and literature throughout history. The Ancient Egyptians worshipped cats, and judging by the amount of cats filling up our social media news feeds, this might be something we have in common.

Somewhere along your English learning journey, you might come across some cat related phrases and idioms that, quite understandably, cause confusion. It’s not uncommon to hear that it’s ‘raining cats and dogs’ (it’s raining heavily), or that there’s ‘no room to swing a cat’ (there’s not much space). With the help of the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, we’ve compiled a list of all the cat-related phrases you’ll ever need. Try working some of these into your next English conversation!


Be the cat’s whiskers/pyjamas (informal)

To be the best thing, person, idea, etc.

Raining cats and dogs
​(informal)

To be raining heavily.

(Has the) cat got your tongue? ​(informal)

Said to somebody, especially a child, who stays silent when expected to speak, for example after being asked a question. What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?

Curiosity killed the cat (saying
used to tell somebody not to ask questions or try to find out about things that do not concern them.

Let the cat out of the bag
to tell a secret carelessly or by mistake. I wanted it to be a surprise, but my sister let the cat out of the bag.

Like a cat on hot bricks (British English
Very nervous. She was like a cat on hot bricks before her driving test.

Like a cat that’s got the cream (British English)

Very pleased with yourself. She looked like a cat that’s got the cream. She was almost purring with pleasure.

Like herding cats (informal)

Used to describe a very difficult task, especially one that involves organising people. Managing a political party is a lot like herding cats.

Look like something the cat brought/dragged in (informal)

A person that looks look dirty and untidy.

No room to swing a cat (informal)

When somebody says there’s no room to swing a cat, they mean that a room is very small and that there is not enough space.

Not have/stand a cat in hell’s chance (of doing something)

To have no chance at all.

Play (a game of) cat and mouse with somebodyplay a cat-and-mouse game with somebody

To play a cruel game with somebody in your power by changing your behaviour very often, so that they become nervous and do not know what to expect. He thought the police were playing some elaborate game of cat and mouse and waiting to trap him.

Put/set the cat among the pigeons (British English)

To say or do something that is likely to cause trouble. Then she told them she was dropping out of college. That really set the cat among the pigeons.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat (sayinghumorous)

There are many different ways to achieve something.

When the cat’s away the mice will play (saying)

People enjoy themselves more and behave with greater freedom when the person in charge of them is not there.


Practice makes perfect! Keep practising these phrases to improve your fluency. Try building your own word list on the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary website to pull together your target vocabulary.

Finally, did you know that many of the colleges that make up Oxford University have their own resident cats? See for yourself!

Even the official residency of the UK Prime Minister has one, meet larry! 

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and learners top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help people around the world to learn English.

Leave a Reply