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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, October 25, 2013

Cat word of the month: tuxedo

A very apt name for a black or charcoal grey cat with a white "shirt front" is "tuxedo cat". Aquinas always used to park himself on a chair at the dining room table as soon as I set the table, and he looked for all the world as if he had changed into formal attire for dinner, so I have always found this term particularly appropriate.

I don't think it has yet caught on in Britain, where they call the garment a "dinner jacket". Somehow "dinner jacket cat" doesn't seem right. But clearly the same idea was in T.S. Eliot's mind when he created "Bustopher Jones: Cat about town (in white spats)" for Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. (We'll forgive Eliot his curmudgeonliness about the word "television" for his obvious love of felines.)   

Illustrations by Edward Gorey, 1982


Perhaps "Bustopher Jones cat" should be the term adopted by the British (if you are British, please let me know if you do have a name for this kind of cat).

The earliest evidence I have been able to find for the term "tuxedo cat" is from 1979:
"She works on a seven-year-old black-and-white tuxedo cat named Marcel."
New York Magazine, 10 Dec. 1979, p. 126,
but the word "tuxedo" goes further back. 

It is said that a young scion of the wealthy with the improbable name Griswald Lorillard showed up in a tailless jacket in 1886 at the annual debutante ball at the posh Tuxedo Park country club about an hour north of New York City. The fashion, however, possibly dated from as early as 1865, when the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) apparently favoured it at Sandringham. Whatever the origins of the garment, by 1889 it was being called a "tuxedo coat" or "tuxedo jacket", shortened a couple of decades later to "tuxedo". Of course, this more informal way of dressing did not meet with everyone's approval:

I'm happy to announce that another tuxedo cat is now in residence at Chateau Wordlady, having adopted me at the end of the summer.
Here he is:

At first I thought of naming him "Balanchine" to reflect his resemblance to the male dancers' costumes in some of George Balanchine's ballets:

Robert Tewsley and Nao Sakuma in Symphony in Three Movements

He is now officially "Minkus", but perhaps "Balanchine cat" would be another appropriate name (at least among balletomanes) for this colour pattern. (If you love Balanchine, you might want to check out my upcoming ballet trips to Paris and Amsterdam, New York, San Francisco, and Saratoga Springs).

Finally, we cannot leave this topic without mentioning the most famous tuxedo cat of all: Sylvester.  Sufferin' succotash!

For the origins of the word "tabby", click here.
For "marmalade", click here.
For "ginger", click here.
For "Tom", click here.
For "calico", click here.

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  1. Thank you! Aquinas is very fine.

    I have a grey-and-white tuxedo too, but the city I live in seems to think that only black cats can be tuxedos.

    When I first registered him for his license and described him as a "grey tuxedo," the form I got back had transformed my description into "grey and black and white".

    Looking forward to the next cat word... Maybe your British fans would like "moggie" (or "moggy"?)...

    1. Odd that bureaurats would be so picky about cat descriptions. maybe they have a computer program that doesn't allow anything whimsical!

  2. I like the suggestion of "moggie" as your next cat word. (Some of my daughters' favourite children's books were the "Mog" books by Judith Kerr.)

  3. I will definitely look into "moggie"!

  4. And of course there is the literary tuxedo cat, Simon Teakettle. http://www.simonteakettle.com/simont.htm


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.