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Friday, September 27, 2013

Cat word of the month:Tomcat

What man's name do you automatically associate with male cats?

Gilbert, right?

Well, for some reason, that's what people thought of in the Middle Ages.

"Gilbert" is an Old French name of Germanic (Frankish) origin, derived from gisil ‘pledge’ + berht ‘bright, famous’. It was adopted by the Normans, who introduced it to Britain. Its short form, "Gib" was particularly popular for male cats. From the 1500s to the 1800s, male cats were known as "gib cats" (also as "ram cats" or "boar cats").

Another name used to name cats was "Tibert", which was the moniker of the feline in the 13th-century bestseller, the immensely popular Roman de Renart (The Story of Reynard the Fox)

Renart and Thibert fight over a sausage (14th-century manuscript)

Only a cat could outwit a fox!

Thibert was derived from Theodberht (theod = people + berht = brilliant). Shakespeare puns on it in Romeo and Juliet when he has Mercutio address Tybalt (whose name was really a version, not of Theobert, but of the similar "Theobald") thus: 
Mercutio: Tibalt, you ratcatcher, will you walke? 
Tybalt: What wouldst thou have with me?  
Mercutio. Good King of Cats, nothing but one of your nine lives. 

In Old French, before the Roman de Renart, a fox was called a goupil, derived from the Latin vulpecula (little fox), a diminutive of vulpes (fox). But crafty Renart was so popular that his name ended up becoming the French word for "fox". "Tibert" didn't have the same success, but, in a similar fashion, it was another popular book that gave English its name for a male cat. 

In 1760 an anonymous work, The Life and Adventures of a Cat, was published. Cat-mania obviously existed long before the internet, because this book became very popular. The hero's name was Tom (it was a close call, because, according to the book, several of his father's friends wanted to name him Michael), and he was commonly referred to as ‘Tom the Cat’. Thus Tom became a favourite allusive name for a male cat and people said ‘this cat is a Tom’. Poor Gib and Tib were defeated, and "tom cat" took over.

I feel this post is not complete unless I share with you the OED's inimitably worded definition for the verb "tomcat", which dates from the 1920s: " intr. To pursue women promiscuously for sexual gratification."

I used to have a beautiful charcoal-grey-and-white male "tuxedo cat" whom, in reference to his tom-ness (and a grave philosophical air he had), I called "Aquinas" after the 13th-century philosopher and theologian St Thomas Aquinas. Next month, we look at the word "tuxedo". 

Thomas Aquinas, clearly looking like...
...a tuxedo cat

For the origins of the word "tabby", click here

For "marmalade", click here
For "ginger", click here.
For another word derived from the name "Tom", click here
For "calico", click here.

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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.