Phrases with the word cat

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Hello and welcome to Learn English Vocabulary. My name is Jack and I’m making this podcast for you to learn or revise English vocabulary. 

These podcasts are graded from A2 which is around lower intermediate all the way to C2 which is advanced. 

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This podcast is C1 which means that I’m going to describe some advanced vocabulary. Generally, for this level podcast, I’m going to focus on advanced idioms and expressions. To start with, I’m going to look at five idioms that have the word cat in them.

The idioms I’m going to describe are: to let the cat out of the bag, to set a cat among the pigeons, cat got your tongue, a fat cat and to be like the cat that got the cream.

I’m not sure that any of these expressions were invented by cat lovers. In fact the first two I want to talk about have a very sour view of our feline companions. 

A fat cat 

Let’s start with a fat cat. This is used to talk about very wealthy and powerful people. CEOs and the types of people who fly around the world in private jets and who seem to have little regard for the majority of people. It comes from politics. Fat cats were originally the people who made big donations to political parties, but has now come to mean the very rich and powerful. I can’t help but feel that the person who coined this phrase was a dog owner. You see, people who love dogs think that cats seem cold and aloof. They seem to think they are better than everyone else. A fat cat might seem like a smug, self satisfied animal. Whereas a fat dog is just a chunky good boy. Still, it is quite a good expression to describe wealthy middle aged men, less frequently women, who believe that their wealth and fortune makes them special, perhaps it does, but nobody likes a smug, self satisfied person and more than a smug, self- satisfied fat cat.

Like the cat that got the cream

The next idiom is to look like the cat that got the cream. This is similar to fat cat in that it is based on the idea that cats are rather pleased with themselves. Now if you imagine how a cat might look – considering their already over-inflated egos – if he or she actually achieved something. Well, they would seem really pleased with themselves; proud and self-satisfied. And that’s how the idiom is used to talk about people. We use it when someone looks really proud of themselves – but not in a good way. I don’t think you’d normally use it to talk about an athlete celebrating winning a race or scoring a goal. There are some athletes who seem a bit smug about their successes, but you’d be more likely to come across this phrase when talking about a business man looking pleased with themselves after securing a very profitable deal. President Trump often looks like the cat that got the cream.

Let the cat out of the bag

Let’s move on to the next idiom; to let the cat out of the bag. This is a strange expression. Who puts cats in bags? I had a ginger tom when I was growing up and I don’t think there was ever much chance of getting him in a bag. However, if you had managed somehow, when you let him out, you would want to stand back. This idiom is interesting because the cat stands for a secret. If you let the cat out of the bag, you reveal or tell someone a secret that you weren’t supposed to, usually unintentionally. I have read that this expression comes from an old scam in which people would put a cat in a bag and try to sell it as a piglet. If you open the bag, the cat will escape and reveal the truth. So, if someone tells you a secret, be careful what you say in case you accidentally let it slip and let the cat out of the bag.

Cat got your tongue?

The next phrase is Cat got your tongue? This is another odd phrase and I have no idea how where it comes from. It’s used to informally interrogate someone about why they are not talking. It’s quite friendly and playful and should not  be used in a formal interview situation. It’s only really used as a question. The full question would be has the cat got your tongue? But I think it’s always shortened to Cat got your tongue? The more I think about this expression, the weirder it seems. I can’t really imagine a situation where a cat could stop you from talking by holding your tongue. Let’s move on to the last phrase.

To set a cat among the pigeons

To set a cat among the pigeons or to put a cat among the pigeons is a really lovely idiom. I think it’s quite easy to work out the meaning if you imagine what would happen if you actually put a cat in a crowd of pigeons. Well, if I had ever put my cat among pigeons, he would have tried to catch and kill as many as he could and the pigeons would have all gone crazy trying to escape. My cat was not a great hunter and never really caught anything bigger than a moth so I think the pigeons would have been fine, but in the seconds after I released my cat, it would have been chaos. So to set or put a cat among the pigeons is to do something that causes a lot of trouble.  Normally, this would be to do something that makes lots of people argue and get very angry. 

So there are five idioms that are based on some strange ideas about cats. 

If you have enjoyed this podcast, please leave me a comment or a review and don’t forget that you can read the transcript for this podcast and complete some language activities on

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  • Danny Hai
    Posted 14/02/2021 at 12:54 am


    Thank you very much for making this helpful podcast. But I don’t understand the phrase “sour view” in the last paragraph of the Introduction section.

    Can you please explain?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Jack
      Posted 17/02/2021 at 4:00 pm

      Hi Danny

      A sour view is a negative view. If someone is sour about something, they have a bad attitude towards that thing. Recently, the term ‘salty’ has become quite popular to say that someone is being negative or aggressive. ‘Sour’ is similar and collocates or goes together with ‘view’ quite commonly. Another similar phrase is ‘dim view’ which means a negative attitude or judgement usually ‘taken of’ a particular activity or situation.

      I hope that helps


    Posted 17/12/2021 at 1:10 pm

    Hi, you are great. That’s very generous of you.

  • Martha
    Posted 16/06/2022 at 9:03 am

    Great thanks

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