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?


  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
    в пальтишке рваном,-
    никем не опознан.
    подыматься рано.
    А послезавтра-
    Завтра, значит.
    Ну, не сдобровать им!
    биту и ободрану!
    Уж мы
    с царёвой кровати
    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. 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. 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. 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. (sorry for the extra italics)

  54. Fixed!

  55. 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. 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. 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.

  73. That is exactly what my mother used to say when we referred to someone as “she”. I grew up in New York in the 1940s-50s and my mother was born in New York. It seems like a very widespread usage!

  74. It offends me when my son or husband calls me “she”. As a child, my father said, “Don’t call your mother [or grandmother] ‘she’!” I accepted that.
    I’ve tried to explain it to my husband, who thinks that I’m being ridiculous.
    My father is of Scottish-Canadian and Polish descent.
    Glad to read that I’m not alone on this one.

  75. I wonder if the reason that there isn’t a male equivalent is that no one would dare to call their father “he”.
    Also, women may have been more subtle. “Who’s ‘she’? The cat’s aunt?” sounds a lot better than, “Don’t call me ‘she’!” I’ll be using it from now on.
    I just realized that my late mother used to say, “Who’s ‘she’? Someone the cat dragged in?” I didn’t know what she meant, so perhaps subtle is overrated.

  76. David Marjanović says

    no one would dare to call their father “he”

    …Is that so?

  77. This whole subject defies logic. The purpose of communication is to efficiently, and politely, impart information. If the person is nearby, the listener is much more certain to understand who “she” is. If the person is not present, then more clarification might logically be required. “Who is she?” “Why, the Queen, of course.” Common courtesy naturally dictates the use of names and titles when addressing a person directly, but Sir and Madam can also be used as substitutes. Indeed, discretion might require using pronouns instead of names. Side conversations can be facilitated this way. As always, context is everything.

  78. Aussy boy says

    Still very much alive at my aunties, i’ve learned not to say “She”

  79. I have been reproved in this matter.

  80. This phrase about the cat’s mother seems to be a one especially favored by abusive — and particularly narcissistic — mothers. Their fragile egos can’t handle being referred to in any way other than extraordinary.

  81. Frank Cowan says

    My father would say this to me.
    I keep the tradition alive.
    I have 3 kids….
    Love you all.

  82. Good for you!

  83. My daughter is called Katt. Therefore I am the Katt’s mother which greatly amuses me.

  84. Owlmirror says

    I wonder if H. Rider Haggard (author of “She”) and/or John Mortimer (creator of “Rumpole of the Baily”, and inspired by Haggard’s book) responded with “She Who Must Be Obeyed” when their own mother used this formula to chide about using the pronoun.

  85. Stephen M. Jacoby says

    re the grandmother version : my grandmother used it in New York when I was a child in the 40s. she was born in the 19th century in Berlin but might have picked it up in US. my recollection is that it didn’t matter if the person (female) was present ; I don’t recall it coming about about males. I thought it was idiosyncratic with my grandmother — we had nothing like Google then and it would never have occurred to me to go to the local library to look for it in the oed. Indeed does anyone know how it is listed in the oed? under “she”?

  86. Yes; here’s the subentry:


    P1. who’s she—the cat’s mother? and variants: said to a person (esp. a child) who uses the feminine third person singular pronoun impolitely or with inadequate reference.

    1878 ‘C. Bede’ in Notes & Queries 25 May 402/1 I cannot find any mention of this books of proverbial expressions, but it is one with which I have been acquainted from my youth… For example, a little girl runs in to her mother, and says excitedly, ‘O mamma, we met her just as we were coming home from our walk, and she was so glad to see us!’ Upon which the mamma says, ‘Who is “she”? the cat’s mother?’
    1897 ‘S. Grand’ Beth Bk. xx. 204 Don’t call your mamma ‘she’. ‘She’ is a cat.
    1913 C. Mackenzie Sinister St. I. i. i. 9 ‘Who’s She?’ demanded Nurse. ‘She’s the cat’s mother.’
    1949 N. Streatfeild Painted Garden ix. 105 ‘She said so.’ Jane looked superior. ‘She, my boy, is the cat’s mother.’
    1972 H. Casson & J. Grenfell Nanny Says 21 Who’s she? The cat’s grandmother?
    2001 H. Cross My Summer of Love (2002) 219 ‘Who’s she, the cat’s mother?’ Lindy said, not looking up from the magazine.

    The antedating in the revised entry (updated September 2013) is particularly interesting, because “from my youth” would seem to take it back at least to midcentury.

  87. I searched Google Scholar, and serendipitously found a non-cat variant of the reproof:

    Grusec, J. E., & Goodnow, J. J. (1994). Impact of parental discipline methods on the child’s internalization of values: A reconceptualization of current points of view. Developmental psychology, 30(1), 4.

    For example, in their responses to children using pragmatic forms of language of which they disapprove, parents often use indirect ways of stating both the rules and the reasons for them (J. A. Becker, 1988, 1990). They say, for instance, “What’s the magic word?,” when children have not said “Please”; “I must be going deaf” or “Don’t yell” when children have not answered a parent’s question; or “‘She’ stands in the stable” or ” ‘She’ is the cat’s mother” when children have referred to the mother, or to some other female, in that female’s presence.

    (emph mine, of course)

    I wonder, idly, if there was an original longer form: “‘She’ is the cat’s mother that stands in the stable.”

  88. And another cat-variant, this one for when “she” isn’t used:

    Folk-phrases of Four Counties (Glouc., Staff., Warw., Worc.) English dialect society, 1894

    Her’s the cat’s mother. Warw. Said to one who uses the possessive her of the third person instead of the nominative she.

  89. Another Google Scholar hit:

    Brook G.L. (1979) Dialects. In: Varieties of English. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

    In some dialects the use of the pronoun she is resented. A protest against its use might take the form ‘And who’s she when she’s at horne?’ A more idiomatic protest, frequently heard in the West Riding of Yorkshire, is ‘ “She” is t’cat’s mother’

  90. It would be really interesting to know how that phrase developed and spread. It’s certainly not obvious.

  91. Hm!

    Zeitlyn, D. (2005). Words and processes in Mambila kinship: The theoretical importance of the complexity of everyday life. Lexington Books. (just the Introduction)

    [ … ] in my examination of the use of social deictic terms below I found that speakers departed from the usual preference for minimal identification for emphasis and as a result of social factors. For example, in English it is often thought rude to refer to a senior kinsperson by a ‘mere’ pronoun (especially in their presence) although this would be sufficient to identify the person concerned. Hence the idiomatic rebuff: ‘Who’s “ she”, the cat’s mother?’
    [14] The use of a pronoun, especially in the presence of the person referred to makes that pronoun marked. Stereotypically, in such cases the use of a kin term implies recognition of a parent-child relationship, which is put into doubt by pronominal usage. Granted a context of usage—particularly the presence of the person being referred to—it is perceived to be rude to remove this recognition and so the principle or maxim of providing only the minimal necessary identification of referents (as often accomplished with pronouns) must be violated to preserve social structure in the form of stable parent-child relationships.

    (emphasis in original)

    Footnote 14:

    Partridge gives the following definition: ‘A catch phrase addressed to a child who refers to his mother, or any other grown-up woman he should respect, merely as ‘she’: since mid C19th. Sometimes ‘And who is “she”? She is… (1984:1046).

    More on Mambila:

  92. The antedating in the revised entry (updated September 2013) is particularly interesting, because “from my youth” would seem to take it back at least to midcentury.

    But that citation seems to be just about unclear reference, not impoliteness. “She” isn’t referring to the mother but to some unknown woman.

  93. More Notes and Queries references. There may be yet more:

    This is familiar to me as a Yorkshire expression, but certainly not as an illustration of perspicuity of language and precision of reference. On the contrary, I have always heard it employed for confusion of reference and ambiguity of language. Nor is it ever, that I know of, used by the classes which supply “mammas” and little girls to literature. It was considered, in my time, a most vulgar form of speech, fit only for the mouths of servant-maids, who, in discussing their mistress, had this adage ready to baffle inconvenient inquiries as to what “unexpressive she” they were talking of. In the nursery, therefore, it was rigidly tabooed, and the rather because in the presence of children a vulgar nursery-maid would be strongly tempted to use it. A. J. M. (5th S. ix. 402., 6/1878)

    I cannot agree with A. J. M. in styling this expression “a most vulgar form of speech,” though certainly an antiquated one, as I have frequently heard it in my childhood from my grandmother, a thorough gentlewoman in every sense of the word; it was used by her as a gentle reproof to the childish speech, “She did this or that” – “She is the cat and he is the dog, my dear.” I wonder if A. J. M. ever heard of “Mr. Brittlecup and Mrs. Tinkettle,” personages to whom this said grandmother was wont to refer young people possessed of undue curiosity. Were they characters in any old novel? Also, who was “Cheeks the Marine,” another answer to impertinent querists, who is, as Capt. Marryat expresses it, “Mr. Nobody” on board a man-of-war? All these mythical persons were familiar to me as a child, and where an absolute scolding was not necessary, the mention of their names sufficed to check juvenile precocity in a truly magical manner. — H. M. L.

    I do not know whether I belong to one of “the classes which supply ‘mammas’ and little girls to literature,” but I do know that “She, the cat’s mother” was often used in our family in the way indicated by Cuthbert Bede [in the first N&Q mention linked above], and I never heard it condemned as a vulgar form of speech, though no doubt, in common with other adages, there is very little about it that one could call genteel. I believe it did good service in breaking children of the habit of referring to a person as “she,” without ever mentioning her name. Under “Cat’s Aunt” Mr. Peacock (Gloss. Manley and Corringham) remarks, “When a person talking of another says ‘she’ without having mentioned her name, his hearer usually says, by way of reproof, ‘She’s the cat’s aunt,’ i.e., the word she might have that significance. Common in London.” — St. Swithin.

    In Kent, and by Kentish folk, the same thought is expressed by “She is the cat’s grandmother,” and is uniformly used to inculcate in children a respectful way of speaking of elders. Supposing a child to be talking of a lady, at first mentioning her by name, but proceeding to a long relation in which “she” occurs incessantly, the mother will bring to the child’s mind a sense of undue levity, and a want of deference perceived in this style of talk by, “My dear, remember that ‘she’ is the cat’s grandmother.” — George Redway. (ibid. x. 77–78)

    I recently heard the correlative expression “He, the cat’s father,” used. — P. J. F. Gantillon. (ibid. xii. 396. Nov. 1879)

  94. Curiouser and curiouser!

  95. I Googled Scholar for the other form:

    Becker, J. A. (1990). Processes in the acquisition of pragmatic competence. In G. Conti-Ramsden & C. E. Snow (Eds.), Children’s language series. Children’s language, Vol. 7 (p. 7–24). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

    Their suggestion reminds me of a pragmatic aphorism that I acquired from my mother (“She” stands in the stable, a way to point out that one does not use pronouns to refer to people who are present) which, she informed me, she learned from her mother. Keesing (1982) collected similar admonitions passed down from Australian women to their daughters.

    [and not their sons?]

    That reference is:

    Keesing, N. (1982) Lily on the dustbin: Slang of Australian women and families. Ringwood, Victoria, Aust. : Penguin.

    . . . and besides the other mention of “‘She’ stands in the stable” that I already found, that seems to be it. I think the other hits are about horses, but I’m not being shown the actual text.

    [Ah, I see now that Grusec & Goodnow, above, were citing the very work by Becker I am now posting. I’d guess that “‘She’ is the cat’s mother” was more familiar to them, but they included Becker’s variant.]

  96. Much of the same discussion at stackexchange. It brings up the similarly snarky “‘Hey’ is for horses.”

  97. From The True History of a Little Ragamuffin (1866) by James Greenwood:

    “What a wicked story-teller you are, Mrs. Burke!”

    Her rage was tremendous. She glared at me till she squinted.

    “What’s that?” asked my father, turning shortly round on me.

    “So she is,” I stoutly replied.

    “So she is what? Who are you a callin’ ‘she,’ you unmannered little warmint? She‘s the cat, don’t you know? Now, then, what do you mean by sayin’ that Mrs. Burke is a story-teller?”

    This is the earliest instance I found, but since it’s already being played for laughs it must be older. IIRC in pre-Twitter days it sometimes took days for a new catchphrase to be used ironically.

  98. @mollymooly: I just mentioned to my daughter that back in 2007 (technically after the advent of Twitter, but before it had grown really huge), there was a This Modern World comic that chronicled how, “Don’t tase me, bro!” would become strictly ironic, then extinct, then retro ironic, all in the course of about a week. (Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any good way to find old comics at Tom Tomorrow’s site; otherwise, I would post a link to the strip.) Naturally, the discussion was triggered by my saying, “Don’t tase me, bro!” ironically.

  99. I didn’t really hear the phrase much as a child and I have never understood why there’s no male equivalent. It seems to imply more than the woman being referred to has a name or to say “I am here you know”, it implies more that “she” is a dirty word and that it’s some kind of insult.

    There’s certainly no male equivalent, and children weren’t reprimanded as much for referring to someone as “he”. I honestly find it quite harsh, as well as very old-fashioned to make a reference about some imaginary cat and one of its parents. Why not just say “she has a name”. It actually seems quite sexist and unequal to think “she” is ruder than “he”

  100. David Eddyshaw says

    There’s certainly no male equivalent

    I have always rebuked my children’s rudeness* by referring to me as “he” in my presence by asking them whether this “he” refers to the cat’s father. This may either be because I am formidably woke, or because they respect their mother too much to refer to her in her presence as “she.”

    *I blame the parents.

  101. The cat, as usual, has no say in the matter.

  102. Cats anyway don’t care what their servants blather about.

  103. My mum said this at least once in the 90s. Grammarphobia says “we can see why ‘she’ is sometimes rude”, but I honestly can’t? And I certainly couldn’t as a child. I was very confused about what I’d done wrong and after dismissing the idea that I was supposed to avoid pronouns entirely I was left with the impression that my own third person pronoun was somehow offensive (that’s great for your self esteem and internalised misogyny, that is) or that talking about people in the third person was somehow rude.

  104. but I honestly can’t?

    Well, as Dmitry Prokofyev said way up there (December 24, 2013 at 4:24 pm): “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.” That said, it obviously isn’t a helpful way to instill the idea into children, and it seems to have traumatized you, so — to those parents who may be reading this and are thoughtlessly barking this at their children — stop it, you hear? Be kind to kids!

  105. David Eddyshaw says

    impolite to refer to a present person using a third-person pronoun

    Someone should tell the Germans.

  106. Who is “Your Honor”? The cat’s honor?

  107. David Eddyshaw says

    Supposing the traditional explanation of the Name, YHWH, is correct (and I don’t think you need to be a Biblical literalist to find it plausible) generations of the pious referred, even when addressing him directly, to the self-designated “I Am” as “He Is.” Seems to be a good way to get a thorough smiting. Probably safer to go with “Lord.” THWH would be only polite, though.

  108. Cats do appreciate respect, but this is a little much.

  109. @Treesong December 26, 2013 at 9:25 pm Marie-lucie, does French have something of the sort for saying ‘Quoi?’ instead of ‘Pardon?’ to ask for a repetition?

    French also has plaît-il? ‘Could you please repeat that? ~ I beg your pardon? ~ Come again?’ (since 1990 also spelled plait-il?), which seems to be obsolescing. Details on the several nuances of the idiom here:

    Vieilli. [Formule de politesse par laquelle on invite un interlocuteur à répéter ce qu’on a (ou feint d’avoir) mal entendu, à expliciter ce qu’on a (ou feint d’avoir) mal compris]. Synon. comment, pardon, hein (fam.). Après qu’il eut eu une assez longue entrevue avec la porte, on ouvrit enfin. Que demande, monsieur? El senor Verdugo. Plaît-il? Ah! pardon; M. Sanson est-il visible? Oui, il est à déjeûner, entrez (BOREL, Champavert, 1833, p.190).
    En partic. [S’emploie pour demander à l’interlocuteur d’expliciter une réaction non verbale] Courpière: (…) la menace que votre frère a tout à l’heure proférée contre moi a déjà entraîné des conséquences qu’il ne dépend plus de lui, ni de vous… ni même de moi… de… modifier… (Elle secoue la tête). Plaît-il? Blanche: Je vous demande pardon, je sais très bien… je crois savoir à quoi vous faites allusion… et cette affaire-là, non plus, n’aura aucune suite (HERMANT, M. de Courpière, 1907, IV, 8, p.31). Le Prince: (…) il arrive que des hommes également honnêtes (…) se trouvent séparés momentanément par les différentes conceptions qu’ils ont de leur devoir. (Hoederer rit grossièrement.) Plaît-il? Hoederer: Rien. Continuez (SARTRE, Mains sales, 1948, 4e tabl., 4, p.149).
    Prononc.: [], [ple-]. Étymol. et Hist. V. plaire [Trésor de la langue Française informatisé].

    I am not sure that the label Vieilli is fully justified. My experience has been that certain usages labeled “obsolete, dated,” etc. in dictionaries survive in smaller communities and/or among older people.

  110. I know a well-educated Indian-born lady in the United States who is fluent in Panjabi, Hindi, and English. When she inquires after my parents’ health, she does not say “How is your mother ~ father ~ parents?” but “How is + given name ~ given names?” I find that unusual. Is she following a custom of Panjabi- or Hindi-speaking society?

    I also know a well-educated American, born in 1939, who refers to her parents by their given names rather than as “my mother ~ my father ~ my parents.” I find that unusual (being a monolingual speaker of English, no non-English influence is possible here).

  111. I also know a well-educated American, born in 1939, who refers to her parents by their given names rather than as “my mother ~ my father ~ my parents.”

    I know several families of maybe a decade or so younger than that vintage, who do the same. I think this is hippy/alternative culture: parents invite their kids to treat them as equals/friends. Even when kids are way into adulthood, I still find it ridiculous: parents are not friends.

  112. Addressing one’s parents by their first names is known here in Germany as well, and associated with the same social groups – hippies / “68ers”, and adherents of certain currents of progressive education.
    Concerning asking about someone’s parents, if I mostly know them through their children, I ask “how’s your mother / father”, but if the parents are people I know pretty well or even better than their children, and the children I’m talking to are adults, I may also use first names, depending on the exact situation and relationship.

  113. In To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960 but set in the mid-1930s, that Atticus Finch has his children call him by his first name is one of the first signs that he is a very different kind of parent.

  114. I am not sure that the label Vieilli is fully justified. My experience has been that certain usages labeled “obsolete, dated,” etc. in dictionaries survive in smaller communities and/or among older people.

    I don’t find those things contradictory; the usage can be vielli while still surviving. (And older people are, after all, vieillis themselves.)

  115. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    When talking to my sisters, I refer to my mother as mor, also when addressing her. But when talking to her partner and her friends or more remote parts of the family, I refer to her by name. (To strangers she’ll be min mor). And then there”s the grandchildren. I’m sure this all is not unique to Danish.

  116. I heard it once (precisely) in Russian: “it’s impolite to call present people he or she”, 6th grade, Russian language and literature teacher.

    I took it as an insteresting (and unknown to me) fact about the world. Since then occasionaly I heard someone referring to “speaking about someone in the third person” – so apparenly some people heard about it – but usually even polite people freely use he and she.

Speak Your Mind