Tag Archives: flogging

If You’re in the Navy, Try Not to Let the Cat Out of the Bag.

Hello everyone.

I was just down Cape Cod over the weekend & since the Cape is all about all things sailing & the ocean, I’ll give you an idiom that had its origins in sailing.

Don’t let the cat out of the bag. You’ve heard it before. Today, it means letting something slip or letting some bad news out, often causing someone else some trouble.

That’s not exactly what it meant back in the day. See, up until the Twentieth Century, if you did something wrong aboard a ship in the Navy, you’d most likely be flogged, or whipped. The process you would go through was, needless today, not a pleasant experience. You’d be brought before the captain & he’d hand you your sentence. If you were to be whipped, he’d decide how many lashes the you would get & then would see to it that the boatswain’s mate dished out the punishment. The worse the punishment, the more lashes you’d receive. Most were scarred & would pass out during the whipping. Others flat out died.

The whip itself was usually made out of leather, with its end separated into nine knotted ends, or tails. If there was no whip to be found on the ship, the offending sailor was given a piece of cut rope with one end dipped in tar, so it wouldn’t fray. Under the boatswain’s mate’s close watch, he would unravel the other end of the rope to make nine ends of the whip. He’d then knot each end & dip those in tar, so each one would stay intact during the flogging. The sailors nicknamed this whip, “cat o’ nine tails.”

Yeah, yeah, I know where most of your minds went when I used that term. Stop it; I only have a little bit more to go.

Generally, the cat o’ nine tails was kept in a leather bag, so whenever a sailor did something that warranted a beating, the other sailors would say that he let the cat out of the bag.

Another common expression revealed. There you have it.  Now you know. You’re welcome.


Filed under Etymology