Answer Man: What's so great about the 'catbird seat'?

News-DemocratFebruary 3, 2014 

For many, many years, I've heard the expression "sitting in the catbird seat." Please explain what it means. -- Gus Lignoul, of Granite City

The meaning is clear: "Catbird seat" is simply a synonym for "enviable position." If you are sitting in the catbird's seat, you have the upper hand or the greatest advantage in a situation involving two or more parties.

So, if you were playing a decisive poker hand, you'd clearly be on the catbird throne if you were holding a royal flush, the highest-ranking standard poker hand. Similarly, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse found themselves sharing the catbird seat when they rode down on George Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

It's probably a good description of the position a catbird finds itself in when it's sitting high in a tree, contemplating what food to swoop down on. What's far more interesting, though, is the catfight that has erupted over its origin.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use is found in American humorist James Thurber's 1942 short story entitled -- what else? -- "The Catbird Seat."

The tale introduced readers to a Mrs. Barrows, who liked to use the term. When another character (Joey Hart) is asked to explain where Barrows heard it, he explains it this way:

"'She must be a Dodger fan,' he said. 'Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions -- picked 'em up down South. "Tearing up the pea patch" meant going on a rampage; "sitting in the catbird seat" means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.'"

As a matter of fact, Barber did use the expression, but this has generated one of those classic chicken-or-egg disputes. According to Barber's daughter, Sarah, her father began using the phrase after reading Thurber's story.

But Barber himself said it was the other way around. In Bob Edwards' book "Fridays With Red," Barber says he first heard the term during a Great Depression poker game in Cincinnati, and that Thurber did indeed hear Barber use it on the radio. Barber then reiterated this sequence of events in his 1968 autobiography, "Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat," which he wrote with Robert Creamer.

If you're wondering whether there is an actual catbird, there is. Several groups of songbirds are referred to as catbirds because of their wailing cry that resembles a cat's meow. In fact, their genus name -- ailuroedus -- is Greek for "cat-singer" or "cat-voiced." (An ailurophile is a person who loves cats in case you ever see me wearing my T-shirt sporting the term.)

According to Douglas Harper's Online Etymology Dictionary, "catbird seat" refers to the gray catbird in particular and that the phrase was used in the South in the 1800s. That explains why Barber, a Mississippi native, may have indeed picked it up first.

Now you're in the catbird seat if someone asks you to explain it.

About three weeks ago KSDK started airing ads announcing that Art Holliday and Casey Nolan were going to Sochi to cover the Olympics. Now we see the same promos sans Art. What happened? -- Don K, of New Athens

Everyone dreads a medical emergency -- especially if you've just been given a plum assignment like covering the Olympics. But if it's going to occur, you want it to happen in a familiar place that offers reliable medical care.

That's why Holliday is probably glad he was still in the good ol' U.S. of A. when he suffered a ruptured appendix last month. If that weren't bad enough, he developed a post-surgical infection that put him back in the hospital for another six days.

"Here's to good health," he posted on his Twitter account after he finally left the hospital last Thursday.

But like the rest of us, Holliday, who will celebrate his 25th anniversary with KSDK this year, will watch the games from his recliner at home while stationmate Casey Nolan goes it alone to Sochi from NewsChannel 5.

Where can I buy DVD copies of George Burns in "Oh, God!" and "Oh, God! Book 2"? -- Grace Conner, of Belleville

You can relive Burns' heavenly high jinks for as little as $6 at amazon.com. It's more expensive, so you might consider asking someone to give you the final sequel -- "Oh, God! You Devil" -- too.

Today's trivia

What two albums hold the distinction of winning the most Grammy awards -- 9?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: Although Seattle almost repeated the trick Sunday, Dallas remains the only Super Bowl champ to hold its opposition without a touchdown when they beat Miami 24-3 in Super Bowl VI way back in 1972. It must have put fire into Miami's eyes, though; the very next year the Dolphins became the only team to have a perfect season, 17-0.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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