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What does the phrase "Let the Cat Out of the Bag" mean?

What is the story behind the saying "Let the Cat Out of the Bag"?


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When sharing secrets or planning surprises, we make best laid plans not to “let the cat out of the bag.” This idiom is one of those whose origin is quite fascinating yet oftentimes, a mystery to many. To better understand, let’s travel back in time to the middle ages and find out how the cat came into the picture.

Market traders during the medieval times selling farm animals and produce use sacks for the buyers to easily carry their goods home. Most of the animals like chickens, pigs, goats, etc. were sold alive. It is common practice by farmers that all purchases are being checked before packing up. Now here’s the trick, some dishonest traders would substitute cats for the livestock. Customers, unaware of the deceptive act, at first would walk home happily not until they open the bag and find out they have been ripped off.

The scheme there is dependent on the cat not coming out of the bag or the cat not making a sound. It’s important they use a silent cat; otherwise, customers can distinguish the animal sound and know what’s inside their bag. If the customers would learn about it in the marketplace, they can request for compensation. Traders would definitely be compelled to cover the so-called scam to regain their customer’s trust, which most likely will not happen.

Another term that was known to be related to the idiom was the ‘cat-o-nine tails’, a whip with nine pieces of cord used by British Navy to impose discipline. However, there are no connections to show how the whip in the bag can expose a secret since it was only being used when it’s needed.

The idiom that is more related to the “let the cat out of the bag” is the term “pig in a poke.” Its origin was also to that of the medieval market times. A “poke” means bag in some other regions and the scheme is to sell a “pig” – in the form of a piglet, cat or dog meat instead of selling a high quality meat. It generally means that buyers not checking their purchases might end up buying a low quality product.

Moral of the story, don’t buy a pig in a poke. If you discover something fishy, then let the cat out of the bag.

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