Q: To suggest that there may be several ways of doing something, we often say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” The goriness aside, how did they ever choose an innocent puss as the victim of this heinous act?
J.S., of Belleville
A: Being a lover of all things feline, I’d really like to let the cat out of the bag on this popular centuries-old adage. But after scouring through countless books and etymological websites, I have concluded that the you-know-what has experts’ tongues — or, if nothing else, their research.
The most interesting discovery I made was that the people who began using the phrase seemed to be equal-opportunity animal abusers (in their speech, at least). Way back in 1678, English naturalist John Ray may have provided the earliest written version in his “Collection of English Proverbs”: “There are more ways to kill a dog than hanging.”
But by the 19th century, the tide had turned decisively against poor Kitty. In 1840, American humorist Seba Smith indicated as much in her short story “The Money Diggers” when she wrote: “As it is said, ‘There are more ways than one to skin a cat,’ so are there more ways than one of digging for money.”
Not wanting to overuse a cliché, writers later became more creative in knocking off a few of the creature’s nine lives. In his 1855 classic, Westward Ho!,” Charles Kingsley wrote, “There are more ways of killing a cat than by choking it with cream.” Others did cats in with butter while a few still offed dogs with pudding. Even Mark Twain couldn’t resist getting in on the act in his 1889 “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”: “She was wise, subtle, and knew more than one way to skin a cat.”
Now, some would like to rescue Fluffy from this frightful fate by saying that “cat” actually refers to Southerners saying “cat” for “catfish.” Since people scale fish all the time, this would make the saying more palatable and take Tiger off the hook. The trouble is that the saying likely was in wide usage long before catfish came into the picture.
The same seems to be true for any suggestion connecting it to gymnastics. In that sport, “skinning a cat” is an exercise in which athletes pass their legs between their arms while hanging by the hands from a horizontal bar, which might suggest turning an animal’s skin inside out. But since there’s only one way to do this exercise, it’s unlikely it has anything to do with it.
In any case, nobody I’ve found has suggested why cats are picked on or why the saying popped up in the first place. From my own encounters with people, I can only guess it’s because man’s best friend continues to swamp its major rival in popularity. In a 2010 Associated Press-Petside.com poll, 74 percent said they liked dogs a lot versus 2 percent who disliked them a lot. On the other paw, cats could use an image boost. Only 41 percent liked them a lot while 15 percent detested them.
So with cats often allowed to run free and produce countless litters of little furballs, some likely wouldn’t mind seeing at least a few taking a premature trip to that Heavyside Layer.
▪ Gold-medal answer: A tip of the Answer Man cerebrum to Rick Reckemp and Madison High School basketball coaching legend Larry Graham for finally clearing up the mystery over an Olympic torch that was run through the streets of metro-east cities. Turns out it was in 1994 to herald the 13th U.S. Olympic Festival on both sides of the river. Roughly 5,000 people ran it through 110 bistate towns. (Reckemp even sent along a picture of him modeling his T-shirt to prove it.)
Launched in 1978 as the National Sports Festival, the games allowed Summer Olympics athletes and hopefuls to hone their athletic skills in non-Olympics years. During the “St. Louis Gateway to the Gold,” more than 3,000 athletes came to compete in 37 sports at 25 venues. Opening ceremonies under the Gateway Arch on July 1 were emceed by Bob Costas and featured Al Joyner, who in 1984 had become the first American to win the Olympic triple jump since the 1904 games in St. Louis, as the final torch bearer before the cauldron was lit. The final such festival, however, was held the following year in Denver.
As for memories of other torches, I have to agree with Jeri Hohrein, of Belleville, who remembers Kurt Weisenstein carrying one in the late 1980s in Belleville during a Special Olympics’ Law Enforcement Torch Run to raise money and promote awareness of the games.
Could you be a (gasp!) librocubucularist and not know it?
Answer to Friday’s trivia: Majel Barrett certainly lived long and prospered on “Star Trek.” The wife of series creator Gene Roddenberry, Barrett was the only actor to play a role in all of the first five Trek live-action TV series. After starting out as Nurse Chapel on the original, she turned into Lwaxana Troi on “The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine” as well as providing the ship’s computer voice on all five series. However, Michael Dorn — Lt. Worf — is said to have the record for appearing in the most Trek episodes, 272.