The Cat’s Mother.

A couple of years ago, Grammarphobia had a post on an intriguing usage with which I was unfamiliar:

There was a time when a child could get a scolding for using the word “she” instead of a name, especially if the “she” (often an older person, like one’s mother) was present.

And the scolding might have consisted of “Who’s ‘she’—the cat’s mother?”

They provide the OED citations:

“Don’t call your mamma ‘she.’ ‘She’ is a cat” (from The Beth Book, by Frances Macfall, writing as Sarah Grand, 1897).

“ ‘Who’s She?’ demanded Nurse. ‘She’s the cat’s mother’ ” (from Compton Mackenzie’s novel Sinister Street, 1913).

“ ‘She said so.’ Jane looked superior. ‘She, my boy, is the cat’s mother’ ” (from The Painted Garden, by Noel Streatfeild, 1949).

“To one who keeps saying ‘she’ in an impolite manner the reproof is: ‘Who’s she, the cat’s mother?’ ” (from The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, by Iona and Peter Opie, 1959).

“Who’s she? The cat’s grandmother?” (from Nanny Says, by Sir Hugh Casson and Joyce Grenfell, 1972).

And they end with the question, which I second: “Is all this merely quaint nostalgia by now, or do parents still reprimand their children for using ‘she’ impolitely?” Are you familiar with this time-honored reproof?

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    Still alive as a usage in my family, even unto the present generation.
    Perhaps it’s a UK-ism?

    “Sinister Street” is worth reading.

  2. “Are you familiar with this time-honored reproof?” Yup. We were encouraged to use nouns or proper names rather than pronouns. Apart from politeness, it does tend to make for clarity.

  3. vrai.cabecou says:

    My New York-born husband does this to our teenage sons. I’m from the South, and I had just considered it a personal quirk. I didn’t know it was something other people did. He doesn’t use the “cat’s mother” line, though.

  4. Dmitry Prokofyev says:

    Seems to be a transcultural thing too: they taught us too (in Russian) it was impolite to refer to a present person using a third-person pronoun. No mention of cats or their family though.

  5. No such animal — cat or otherwise — that I recall in my Toronto semi-immigrant-household (from Eastern Europe) upbringing. But adult cousins were referred to as Cousin Fred, while similar age-cohort cousins were simply Fred or Linda. A married couple, close friends of my parents, were to be addressed as Aunt Ethel and Uncle Harry. I recall that my grandmother’s friends addressed each other as Mrs X, Mrs Y, etc and were referred to as such in family discussions.

  6. Oh yes – my mother (UK, Lancashire) still uses this all the time. Mind you, she is a teacher.

  7. My mother used to say “she’s the cat’s mother” to me. I was born in New Zealand in the mid-70s. It’s interesting, because I’d never heard anybody else say that until I read this post. I have no idea if the tradition has been kept alive, though – my daughter is too young to offend in this way, and I can’t imagine me saying that to her, and living in China means I have no idea how my brother and his wife educate or discipline their kids.

  8. Also in Naipaul’s «The Mystic Masseur». “As Ganesh left he heard beharry saying, ‘She? Is how you does call your mother? Who is she? The cat mother?’”

    Slightly related, in the same book: “… in all that time you never bother to send a message to ask me, ‘Dog, how you is?’ or ‘Cat, how you is?’ So why for you come now, eh?”

  9. Jeffry House says:

    My Dad would not permit any of us to refer to my mother as “she”. He taught us that it was the height of disrespect. He died twenty years ago, though, and I haven’t enforced the rule with my own sons, except of course by example.

    We lived in Wisconsin; he was a journalist, so had some professional reasons to be careful with words.

  10. I was talking to a Cambridge college bursar a few months ago. He said that throughout his working life he’s been called “Tom” until he joined his college where he is addressed as “Bursar” – except by one of the kitchen staff who addresses him by “Wotcha, Burse”. He rather likes that.

  11. My wife feels that it’s impolite.

  12. I have never heard this before, and frankly, I find it a little bizarre.

  13. Still alive in Australia too.

  14. Discussed e.g. here. Multiple respondents confirm that, when they were growing up in Russia, they were told that it is impolite to use “he” or “she” instead of proper names of the people present during the conversation. I think it makes good educational sense, to motivate the kids to memorize and use names and the expressions of politeness. But it equally applied to “he” and to “she”, and there were no cats.

    The only related дразнилка from Russian preschoolers’ rich variety of teasers I recall went as,
    “Он, он, он, он // Жопой чистит стадион”

  15. Weirdly, this treatise on pronouns starts with describing usage of he/she in Russian as a potent shibboleth, but then continues with explaining the proper usage by the regular grammar logic of antecedents. What’s so Russian-specific about antecedents??

  16. Скажем ребенку: «Говорить Че она дерется! неправильно. Нужно говорить Че эта девочка дерется…». И ни слова про вежливость! А слово че лучше не исправлять, иначе ребенок сочтет вас занудой.

    Does this peculiarity of usage exist in Britain, too? Where even if a child doesn’t know a name of a person, perhaps of a stranger, it is still wrong to use “he” or “she”… and the right way to refer to them is as “this-somebody”, for example, “this girl” or “this aunt”?

  17. marie-lucie says:

    Perhaps related:

    Some years ago when I lived in British Columbia (Western Canada), the major newspaper had a columnist, an older lady, who often wrote about her family and daily life and referred to her husband (whose name was never revealed) as Himself, as in Himself said this, Himself did that, etc. I read later that this was an Irish usage. Does anyone know more about it?

  18. @marie-lucie: Interesting… that’s how Hal refers to his father in Infinite Jest…

  19. I heard this as a child, certainly from a teacher, maybe also from someone’s mother. It strikes me as the kind of thing that gives teachers a bad name.

  20. Yes, those are known as “unbound reflexives.” They’re mentioned in the Wikipedia and covered in, e.g., Filppula.

  21. I was intermittently reproved for this when I was a child, but in doing so my father would ask, “Who’s she? The upstairs maid?”

    There was a conscious layer of absurdity to all this, as my father really wasn’t one to stand on ceremony, and you could probably trace our family history back for a thousand years without finding a single maid on the payroll.

  22. In Texas I must have learned that is impolite to say something about someone, in their presence, by using “he/she”. This feeling is so strong that I have occasionally gotten myself into trouble in German conversations by reproving someone for doing that. Germans know nothing about such proprieties.

  23. It would perhaps be fairer to say that most Germans are not explicitly aware of such a propriety, and that there is no cat’s mother presiding over its observance. The more I think about it, the less sure I am that Germans sin against it. I am confident only of the fact that I have gotten myself into hot water by bringing the subject up. .

  24. My mother used to say that, to the word. ‘Who’s “she”? The cat’s mother?’, with some vehemence. If I were teaching foreign students English I suspect I would encourage them to avoid the use of ‘she’ in this manner. In fact, even when looking at a photo, I think it sounds better to say ‘who’s that?’ than ‘who’s she?’.

  25. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    It’s not clear to me — do people have the same response when the pronoun is “he?” Do they say “who’s he — the cat’s father?”

    I don’t recall this being a thing I was taught in this way, though the person being spoken about in third person would often say “I’m right here, you know.”

    I don’t know if it’s related, but I remember as a child feeling deep shame when _I_ was referred to as “she,” but I always thought that was about discomfort about the way I thought people perceived me as a girl, and not offenseabout grammatical manners.

  26. It was certainly “not done” in my family to refer to present people by third person pronouns; but I never gave it much thought. I think I mean it was so “not done” I’d’ve found it ungrammatical.
    When I married, however, I discovered it was a notable thing my parents-in-law did to my husband all their lives, and how much he hated it.
    We all do it, now, but with conscious sarcasm/affectionate rudeness.
    (And far from all the time.)

  27. Notes and Queries discussed this usage back in 1878: see here. The author of the note, Wikipedia tells me, is Edward Bradley, who about 50 years old at the time, and since he remembered the phrase “from his youth”, he must have heard it 30 or 40 years earlier.

  28. My maternal grandmother/usage watchdog whom helped look after me when I was a child would say that to me occasionally, her daughter, whom I saw a few times a year, would say it more often. I doubt it was standard NZE, though, they also pronounced “trait” as “tray” and “pall mall” as “pell mell” and insisted both were the only correct pronunciations.

  29. “Himself”: also Scottish. In Scotland you can greet someone jocularly with “It’s yourself!” or “How’s yourself?” (or Hoo’s Yersel’?)

  30. “they also pronounced “trait” as “tray” and “pall mall” as “pell mell” and insisted both were the only correct pronunciations”: they’re right on the first, of course, but wrong on the second. It’s Pawl Maw!

  31. When I began reading this post, this rule seemed like the most bizarre, arbitrary one I’d ever heard of. Now, at the end of the comments, it strikes me as sound advice, and I shall try to do better from now on.

  32. Stlll in use exactly like that in this British family, although purely jokingly, thus allowing for ‘the cat’s father’. @Dmitry: the conventional upper-class version would be to say ‘the lady’ or ‘the gentleman’, or indeed ‘this lady’. That’s all you need to know, apparently.

  33. We all do it, now, but with conscious sarcasm/affectionate rudeness.

    This is one of the wonderful/inescapable things about family life that it would be hard to explain to an alien (or a computer).

  34. Some prefer “the cat’s aunt”. It would be an interesting exercise to map the “mother/grandmother/aunt” variants. Are these preferences familial or regional?

  35. “This lady” vs. “the lady”, right, Russian doesn’t have a luxury of choosing between the two.

    Marie-Lucie, re: “Himself” for emphasis, Russian has a similar traditional usage, saying “сам” “himself” with the voice lowered / paused for emphasis, meaning “the important guy, you know who”. This sort of deferential tabooing of the proper names of Powers That Be must be common across human cultures?

    In the following example from Mayakovsky’s poem, even the letters of the word “сам” (who in this case is Lenin, unnamed) are spread out in typesetting for emphasis:

    С а м
    приехал,
    в пальтишке рваном,-
    ходит,
    никем не опознан.
    Сегодня,
    говорит,
    подыматься рано.
    А послезавтра-
    поздно.
    Завтра, значит.
    Ну, не сдобровать им!
    Быть
    Керенскому
    биту и ободрану!
    Уж мы
    подымем
    с царёвой кровати
    эту
    самую
    Александру Федоровну

  36. This reminds me of an old Kentucky expression: “I wouldn’t know him from Adam’s housecat.”

  37. Indeed, there are plenty of Germans who consider a bare Die or Der impolite and plenty of teachers I know will point out this usage as undesirable.
    My German grandfather, born at the beginning of WWI used to say “Die ist Zwiebeliese” and “Der ist Wagenschmeer”. No idea where these come from, probably popular due to the assonance, they can be translated as “She is Onion Lisa” and “He is axle grease” (which in standard German should be Wagenschmiere, but then it doesn’t go with Der quite like that. There must be other versions out there, but I sometimes still use my grandad’s sayings with my pupils.

  38. Oh and I forgot – it does not matter in the slightest if the person is around or not. Referring to someone as Die/Der actually tends to happen when someone complains about a third party who might not be there, in that respect it seems similar to “That one/man/woman..” in English.

  39. dee_doubleyew says:

    I grew up with this notion — no reference was made to cats or their mothers — but not when speaking in English, only when speaking Sinhala! It didn’t matter if we were using English. Furthermore, when speaking Sinhala, I could never refer to my mother as “you”. My mother insisted that I and my brothers use “Amma” (mother) e.g. “Does Amma want..?” In general, it was polite never to use “you” or “he/she” when talking to someone in Sinhala.

  40. Sister_Ray: there are plenty of Germans who consider a bare Die or Der impolite and plenty of teachers I know will point out this usage as undesirable.

    Sure, Die or Der is schnodderig even in the absence of the person referred to. But I’m talking about er and sie (on the analogy of the “he/she” of Hat’s post).. Sitting here at my computer, trying to think back over group conversations in general, I’m not quite sure what the general consensus is, if there is one.

    I think it works something like this: in a group of people who know each other well, when Hans has just mentioned having been on holiday, one can in all propriety say something like “Ja, stellt Euch vor, diesmal hat er tatsächlich über Weihnachten Urlaub gemacht !” But you have to look at him with a smile when you say it, or just thereafter, or do something else to make it clear that you are teasing him before a group of acquaintances, not talking to strangers about him as if he were not there.

    In a group fo people who don’t know each other well, you can’t in propriety contribute to the conversation in such a way. That’s my sense of things, at any rate.

  41. Stu, you’re right, er and sie is a different case. It’s tricky to remember past conversations but I suppose in general that talking about someone while he/she is there is not very courteous.
    I remember that my boyfriend’s grandma used to do this with her son and grandson, even going as far as asking me “What is he doing at uni?” while my boyfriend was sitting right next to me. But their family dynamics were weird and it probably was some form of snubbing.
    I can see this working in societies where it is taboo to address certain people directly without proper introductions or familial relations. Like how servants used to speak: “Hat Er noch einen Wunsch?” – at least that’s how it was represented in stories about those times.
    Nowadays, it seems to complicate social relations.

  42. John Cowan says:

    My wife (born 1943 in North Carolina) remembers this prohibition being in full force when she was a child, but I (born 1958 in New Jersey) never heard of it until I was an adult. I do a fair amount of relaying of what one person says to another who doesn’t hear them, as my father was hard of hearing, so I grew up doing this kind of interpreting. It’s completely natural to me to say “He says ‘…” or “She says ‘…’” in such circumstances, without bothering to repeat the name.

    Gale also pointed out that the ban does not apply to possessive his or her. I tried to pin her down on whether it was one of those things that adults could do but kids could not; she wasn’t able to be definitive.

  43. John Cowan says:

    Charlotte: The form I have seen written (but not heard) is “don’t know him from Adam’s off ox” (that is, the right-hand or far-side ox in a team of oxen), which also apparently exists in mondegreened form as “Adam’s all fox”.

  44. For this 40-something Californian, this thread is enlightening and bizarre. Never heard of such a prohibition on pronouns in my entire life…and, even upon reading the various rationalizations, find the stricture completely, utterly irrational, pretentious and precious to the nth degree. Thank heavens my great-grandparents, preservers of various quaint folkways from the Old Countries, left that one beyond the border.

  45. Laowai: IN UK and Australia it is totally unprecious, etc. It is simply good manners, and “the cat’s mother” expression is a way of inculcating that into children. I am impressed by the way American children, and often adults, always seem to call male adults they don’t know “Sir”, which kids over usually here wouldn’t do. Different forms of respect for different folks, I guess. I know that King Hussein would call people Sir occasionally, because he had been educated at a very traditional English school, and then Sandhurst (Britain’s West Point)
    Back to the original question, it’s very familiar to me since childhood.

  46. In my family–Southern father and Newfoundland mother–the question was “Who’s she? She is for she-goats.” There wasn’t a similar question for “he” but I quickly gathered that I was not to refer to either parent by pronoun. I was never admonished when I used she about another adult woman, only my mother.

    Interestingly, a few years ago in Korea I was staying with a friend’s parents. The father spoke rather good English and the mother claimed to speak no English. During one dinner the mother said something to me–I turned to the father for interpretation and he began: “She said…” he go no further in the sentence as his wife laid into him. I couldn’t follow what she said, but when she finished and he resumed he said “My wife said…” She may not have known much English but she wasn’t about to be referred to by a pronoun!

  47. Very well known in Australia, this cat’s mother. As far as I know, no corresponding prohibition on ‘he’. The cat, other than facetiously, has no father. It’s a miracle!

  48. Paul: In the U.S. we have nothing between the respectful “Sir” and the various rude forms (“Hey you! Buddy! Mac! Pal!”); it’s a recognizable gap, and we generally err on the side of overpoliteness unless we are already intimate with the person or we intend to express explicit superiority. What is the merely polite form of address where you are? Or is this where the bit about the two Englishmen stranded on a desert island for thirty years who never exchanged a single word because there was no one to introduce them comes in?

  49. In my family, use of the pronoun elicited the question, “Who is ‘she’–something the cat dragged in?”

  50. Native French speaker. In French, I would consider it slightly strange to talk in the third person of someone if they are present. (If the need to do so arises, you would usually try to semi-address the person in question to indicate, at least in a paraverbal manner, that they are welcome to comment and that you aren’t trying to talk about them in their back.)

    Conversely, if the person is not present, I know of no convention discouraging the use of third-person pronouns in French.

  51. Inn one of Andrew Greeley’s novels, he describes the use of the “impersonal third person” as an honorific in Irish culture. The example is a Irish parish priest visited by his (also Irish) bishop. The priest asks, “Would his Grace enjoy a glass of whiskey from the old country?” Apparently, in this context, “you” would be too close, too familiar, too direct, lacking in respect.

  52. marie-lucie says:

    In old-fashioned upper-class French households, servants did not address their masters in the 2nd person (even following Madame or Monsieur) but use those terms of address like names in a sentence in the 3rd person. A literal English translation sounds absurdly hyperpolite: Madame est servie, literally ‘Milady has been served’ (meaning the table has been set for her and her food is ready for her to eat), Monsieur a sonné? ‘Did milord ring?’, Le costume de Monsieur est prêt ‘Milord’s suit is ready’, etc. (The servants would also use these patterns when talking between themselves about the masters). I am not sure if this usage still persists also in upscale stores and restaurants, when salespersons or waitstaff address the well-heeled customers. (Of course Madame and Monsieur are ordinary terms of address in the modern world, used by all social classes in polite interactions, no longer the social equivalents of ‘milord’ and ‘milady’, but that’s how they started centuries ago, as literally ‘my lord’ and ‘my lady’). A similar pattern is used in Portuguese (at least in Portugal), where the polite form of address (similar to French vous or German Sie) is O senhor/A senhora, literally ‘the lord/the lady’, used with the verb in the 3rd person.

  53. marie-lucie says:

    (sorry for the extra italics)

  54. Fixed!

  55. marie-lucie says:

    Merci!

  56. my parents used to say this.. South Africa in the 70s..
    My children know it too, so it lives on in Denver, though admittedly seen as just another of Father’s many eccentricities.

    In Afrikaans the respectful way for a child to speak of adults was as Oom or Tannie, uncle or aunt. I remember the first time I was called Oom I was just 18..

    I use the ‘this lady’ or ‘this gentleman’ locution myself, pretending to be upper-class..

  57. I remember that my boyfriend’s grandma used to do this with her son and grandson, even going as far as asking me “What is he doing at uni?” while my boyfriend was sitting right next to me.

    Yes, that would be rude, but how would it be any better if she’d said “What is John doing at uni?” while he was sitting there? The pronoun isn’t the problem.

    Do these pronoun prohibitions apply even in consecutive sentences or clauses? Is it not allowed to say “Mother just got back from Switzerland. She was there for two weeks”?

  58. Totally new (phrase and etiquette) to me, 64 and raised in western PA. I remember ‘”Hey” is for horses’, though. And I remember my father saying ‘Was? Was? Kapusta ist was!’ (‘What? What? Cabbage is what!’) I don’t recall if he was using it or just quoting it–considering that we kids never spoke a word of Yiddish, I suspect the latter. Marie-lucie, does French have something of the sort for saying ‘Quoi?’ instead of ‘Pardon?’ to ask for a repetition?

  59. marie-lucie says:

    Tree: does French have something of the sort for saying ‘Quoi?’ instead of ‘Pardon?’ to ask for a repetition?

    When I was young, if my sisters and I said Quoi? to ask someone to repeat, my mother would reprimand us, as it sounded impolite to her, but I have never heard anyone use a phrase similar to “the cat’s mother”. I might still say Quoi? in a very informal situation, such as while sharing kitchen chores, but I would try not to use it otherwise. I would say Pardon? or even (to be extra polite) Je vous demande pardon?

    I must say that pronouncing Quoi?, especially with a lengthened vowel (kwa:) as some people do, leaves the speaker with their mouth open, making them look stupid.

  60. Haven’t heard either the rule or the saying either.

  61. I remember hearing ‘Who’s she? The cat’s grandmother?’ during my childhood in Victoria, BC, but don’t recall the circumstances. No masculine equivalent.

  62. It’s really quite interesting that there’s no masculine equivalent; I wonder why?

  63. Perhaps because rudeness to ladies is thought to be ruder than rudeness to gentlemen.

  64. Yiddish has some jocular rhyming rejoinders to children’s queries, e.g., “ווער? לעקיש בער ver? lekish ber” [who? the foolish bear]. פאר וואס? פאר דאס? far vos? far dos. But nothing against illeism as far as I know.

    I do remember a Hebrew school rhyme, somewhat macaronic:
    הוא (hu) is he and היא (hi) is she and דג (dag) is fish

  65. She (and he) are common polite terms in my family.

    “Where even if a child doesn’t know a name of a person, perhaps of a stranger, it is still wrong to use “he” or “she”… and the right way to refer to them is as “this-somebody”, for example, “this girl” or “this aunt”?”

    This somebody (or that somebody) are othering/insulting terms.

  66. Some Poles also take offense if referred to with a 3rd person pronoun when they are present. I can’t think of any comparable Polish saying used to stigmatize such practice, though. Strictly speaking, in Polish you have two options: in an informal setting it’s better to use the first name, while in a formal setting if you don’t know the person’s name you can use the words pan/pani as polite 3rd person pronouns, replacing the usual on/ona. Funnily, pan/pani also function as formal 2nd person pronouns so a resulting sentence can be rather ambiguous when out of context.

  67. Mary Gill says:

    Yes…in my family too…raised in western PA a child in the 30′s and 40′s.

  68. David Marjanović says:

    Oh and I forgot – it does not matter in the slightest if the person is around or not. Referring to someone as Die/Der actually tends to happen when someone complains about a third party who might not be there, in that respect it seems similar to “That one/man/woman..” in English.

    …I think what’s going on here is something quite different: in Bavarian-Austrian dialects, the demonstrative pronoun* is used instead of the 3rd-person personal pronouns at the slightest hint of emphasis, whenever there’s too much of it to use the clitics**. People from farther north likely find this bizarre, misunderstand it as derogatory (like “that one down there” or Latin iste), and therefore try to discourage it when it spreads to them.

    * They’re like Highlanders, there can be only one. Die/der/das spans the whole range from definite article to pronoun; dies- does not exist, there is no “this”/”that” distinction.
    ** [ɐ] “he”, [s] “she/it/they”.

  69. marie-lucie says:

    This may be similar to the use of celui/celle-ci/là ‘this/that one’ in French. Both can be uttered in the presence of the person referred to. Parents might use these in referring to one of their children in a conversation with another adult, for instance. Using <i.celui/celle-là in referring to another adult in their presence would be quite disrespectful.

  70. “What fer?” “Cat fur to make kitten britches.” West Virginia, 1950s.

  71. ~~ lightbulb ~~

    I know the saying well, but never got the pun before, as I have no fur/for merger.

  72. cat's pajamas says:

    I got “Who’s ‘she’? The cat’s mother?” from my mother and maternal grandmother as I grew up in the late ’80s-’90s in New England.

    Saying “the/this lady” instead most definitely would not have flown. The point, in our household, was to use the person’s usual proper noun instead. I mean, I think the real point was to get us kids to shut up and not speak for our elders, but if you had to, you were supposed to say “Mom doesn’t like bananas,” not “The/This lady doesn’t like bananas.” “Our mother doesn’t like bananas” wouldn’t’ve been rude, but it would’ve been weird.

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