Curiosity Killed the Cat

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 22

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Today, because I'm on deadline, a few disconnected thoughts about one of my favorite words and least favorite phrases: Curious and Curiosity Killed the Cat.

Curious

Snoopy is a well-loved figure in Japan. Not Peanuts, just Snoopy. They don't run the cartoons or strips anywhere and not in Japanese, but Snoopy is cute and funny and a dog, so people love him. As such, I use him as an example in my lessons quite a bit. Something that comes up on occasion is what his name means. I explain that it used to be a slang term for curious, but because the character has gotten so popular, the slang meaning kind of got dropped from daily use. I usually get a mild, huh, in response, but that doesn't stop it from being one of my favorite bits of trivia to tell my students.

Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).” Man, that cracked me up when I was a kid. I saw Disney's Alice in Wonderland long before I ever read the book, so I had known only the first half of the line. Once I actually sat down to read it, the self-referential bit of word play helped turn it into one of my favorite books.

I still think curious works better as an adjective to describe something rather than as a personality trait; here's the thing about curious as personality: it doesn't mean anything. We're all curious. It's part of our evolutionary biology. What's under that rock? Is it edible? Is it screwable? Will it help me build an empire? Let's find out. In other words, we're all curious. We have to be, it's part of our nature. So, to say that you're curious is saying that you're human. Congratulations.

Curiosity Killed the Cat

As for the idiom, the full thing is curiosity killed the cat but satisfaction brought him back and I hate it. I mean, as a rejoinder, it kind of sucks. If a literal cat's curiosity causes it to chew through a lamp wire, guess what? Now understanding that the wire carries electricity is knowledge that does the cat very little good and no amount of satisfaction derived from having learned that is going to bring the cat back from the dead. So, yeah.

And, okay, that's a literal example, but, metaphorically speaking, let's say you're dying to hear a secret. Once you do, you realize this secret is of the devastating kind with lots of real-world consequences and ramifications. Your curiosity has been sated, you are no longer "dying," but can you really say you feel enlivened by the information?

Originally, the phrase went: care killed the cat. Full stop. No rejoinder. And care, in this case, meant worry or stress, not compassion. So, stress killed the cat. Okay. That makes sense. "Hey, Tom. You should relax a bit more. Stress killed the cat, you know."

We're not sure when care changed to curiosity. Wikipedia references an 1868 Irish newspaper as the earliest printed source, so there might be something in the lexical history of Ireland that tells us whether this is a semantic change that equated curious to worry, or if this is just another malapropism that gained enough popularity to become cemented in place. Curious, indeed.

Origin:

The phrase first appeared in print in "Aunt Hetty's Strategem" in the Waterford Mirror and Tramore Visiter, which although online, is unfortunately locked behind a paywall, so we’ll just have to take Wikipedia’s word on this one.

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Notable Events of the Year 1868:

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Synonyms:

Curious is a good word, but it’s getting a little tired, what with it being tied to a type of personality and everything. Here are seven alternate words:

  • Prying

  • Analytical

  • Impertinent

  • Prurient

  • Questioning

  • Searching

  • Disquisitive

Next Time: Blood is thicker than water. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.