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“Scat Cat!” Sneeze Response

Dexter in Clintonville, Alabama, reports that his Minnesota-born wife was baffled after she sneezed and he responded with Scat cat! Across the American South, this phrase and variations of it serve as an informal response when someone sneezes. Other...

Is There a Tail in Telltale Sign?

Ten-year-old Alex, from Oceanside, California, wonders if a cat’s flicking tail inspired the expression telltale sign, meaning “an indicator.” The word is telltale, not its soundalike telltail. About 400 years ago, a telltale was a...

More Impossible Events

Two examples of adynaton, the rhetorical term for playful exaggeration suggesting that something will never happen, involve animals’ tails. One German expression translates as “It’ll happen when the hounds start barking with their...

Take a Jaybird

Judy from Indianapolis, Indiana, remembers her great-aunt Fanny using the expression take a jaybird, meaning take a sponge bath. She explained it as when you wash under your wings and your tail feathers, and maybe polish off your beak. Great-aunt...

Neat but not Gaudy

Scott from Copper Canyon, Texas, wonders about a expression he heard from his childhood in the American South: neat but not gaudy. He understood it to mean appropriate, but not over the top. The expression goes back to 1600s and has many variations...

A Bird’s Bishop’s Nose

A woman in Omaha, Nebraska, is puzzled when a friend refers to the fatty tail bump of a cooked chicken as the bishop’s nose. It may have to do with that part’s resemblance on a cooked chicken or turkey to a human nose, or perhaps to a...