Now the V.O.A Special English Program, "Words and Their Stories".
Every week at this time the Voice of America tells the meaning of words and expression used in American English.
Our expressions today all contain the word "cat".
To bell the cat, means to do something dangerous, something that might end in disaster.
The expression comes from an old story. A family of mice could not leave its hole to get food because of its fear of a cat. The mice decided to tie a bell around the cat's neck. The bell would ring as the cat moved. So, the mice would always know where the cat was. All agreed. It was a wonderful plan that is until one wise old mouse asked, "Who will be the cat?"
Another cat expression is "To grain like a Cheshire cat." Many people have read those words in the book, "Alice's adventures in wonderland" by British writer Lewis Carroll. In the story the little girl named Alice finds a cat smiling or grinning from ear to ear. She is very surprised. She does not know cat can grain. "Ah," she is told, "This cat is special; it comes from Cheshire-that is a country in England.
Whenever the Cheshire cat leaves, its tail disappears first, then its body. Its wide grain is the last thing you see.
Some word experts say, the mysterious smile of Cheshire cat was known long before Lewis Carroll wrote his book. It seems a man painted a picture of a smiling lion on a sign in Cheshire.
It was a strange smile indeed for he was trying to paint an angry lion.
Another expression not often used now is, "to be somebody's cat's paw." It means to be fooled into doing someone else's dirty work.
It comes from an old story about a monkey who wants some buts eating on a fire. The monkey tries to steal the nuts but he burns his fingers. So he seizes the foot or paw of a cat and uses that to pull the buts out of the fire.
The expression "fat cat" describes someone who is rich. You often hear it during political campaigns. Some fat cat give lots of money to politicians they hope will be elected.
American jazz musicians have used the word "cat" to mean "a man". A sharp cat for example is a man who is dressed in latest fashionable clothing.
The great American horn payer Louis Armstrong used the expression this way. Many years ago, Armstrong said, "I had on a new cowboy hat, a fine black suit and new shining leather shoes. I was a sharp cat."