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Lessons From a Victorian-Era Cat Dictionary

“Purrieu,” “ptlee-bl,” and other vital feline vocabulary words.

<em>Kitten's Game</em> by Henriette Ronner-Knip.
Kitten’s Game by Henriette Ronner-Knip. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam/Public Domain

The year 1895 gave us many great works of literature—The Importance of Being Earnest; Jude the Obscure; H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. But among these is an underrated masterwork: Pussy and Her Language, a 150-page pamphlet, self-published by one Marvin R. Clark, about how (and why) to talk to your cat.

Clark’s motivations were pure: he was a cat-lover in a time when most saw the animals as nothing more than haughty mousers. (Even Webster’s Dictionary, a supposedly neutral authority, defined cats as “a deceitful animal” and “extremely spiteful” in its 1828 edition). “One of a million dogs gets a bad name, while not one out of a million Cats gets a good one,” Clark wrote, and he hoped that his work would be able to change that.

His methods, though, were a little strange. In an effort to convince readers of his views, he seems to have invented several scientists, whom he both quoted and impersonated. One of them, introduced as “the great French naturalist Alphonse Leon Grimaldi, F.R.S., F.G.S., M.O.S., D.H. du C., M.F.A. S., M.F.A., et al.,” supposedly “wrote” about half of the book.

All this for arguments that, as we shall see, barely needed boosting. The following are 20 lessons gleaned from Pussy and Her Language, as applicable now as they were a century ago.

<em>Cats Fighting in a Larder</em> by Paul de Vos.
Cats Fighting in a Larder by Paul de Vos. Prado Museum/Public Domain

1. Cats could, at any moment, ruin international diplomacy

“In the grand capitol buildings at Washington, and penetrating, without hindrance, into the very secret Cabinet meetings at the White House, and almost everywhere throughout the whole inhabitable globe, there exists a spy upon whose ears fall the secrets of a nation, which, if breathed at some inopportune moment, might be its ruin.”

2. Cats can predict the weather

“When a Cat washes herself in the ordinary manner, we may be sure of bright, sun-shiny weather, but when she licks herself against the grain of her fur or washes herself with her paw over her ear… there will be a storm.”

3. Napoleon hated cats

“Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have hated a Cat with as great a fervor as was expressed by him for his Austrian and Russian foes.”

4. Despite this, there was (maybe?) a cat hospital in France

“In the city of Paris, France, is a very extensive establishment called Hospice du Chats, whose name is an indication of its object… this building, covering a very large space of land, is two stories in height and expensively built for the exclusive purpose of sheltering the Cats of France… rooms are assigned to the sexes and different nationalities, halls and chambers are warmed by steam, meals are served with religious regularity, and the institution is run with the same regard to decorum and preciseness in every detail as is manifested in a well-regulated hotel.”

<em>The Cat's Lunch</em> by Marguerite Gérard.
The Cat’s Lunch by Marguerite Gérard. Musée Fragonard/Public Domain

5. Sir Isaac Newton may have used his cats to study the laws of physics

“It is said of Sir Isaac Newton that he cut a large hole in his barn for his old cat and a smaller one, beside it, for the young kittens.”

6. Indeed, all the cool people love cats

“Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Moore, Talleyrand, Edgar Allen Poe, Chateaubriand, Robert Southey, Dr. Johnson, Benjamin Franklin, Julius Caesar, Thomas Gray, Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Walter Raleigh, Cardinal Wolsey, Rousseau, Lord Chesterfield, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London, Plutarch, and thousands of others have expressed their admiration of my favorite.”

7. Cats and their allies are definitely feuding with Noah Webster

“Your Noah Webster, who padded your dictionary in order to make a formidable book… says that animals are not possessed of reasoning powers. The intelligent man admits that animals not only have minds, but that they reason also.”

Body language is an important part of cat communication.
Body language is an important part of cat communication. Library of Congress/ LC-DIG-bellcm-06681

8. Cat language comes from God

“I am of the opinion that language is of Divine origin, and that it was put into the mouth of the Cat, the same as it was put into the mouth of Adam, by the Almighty. In this opinion I am encouraged by many of your most prominent writers.”

9. Bill Murray was wrong in Ghostbusters

“Cases have been given of… cats and dogs living together, in the same kennel, of which there have been innumerable instances.”

10. Cat language is fairly robust

“In the word part of the language of the Cat there are, probably, not more than six hundred fundamental words.”

11. There are 17 vital cat vocabulary words

A page from <em>Pussy and Her Language</em>.
A page from Pussy and Her Language. Biodiversity Heritage Library/Public Domain

12. Cats have French accents

“The word ‘purrieu’… is a note of self-satisfaction and content… give attention to the number of vowels and the Frenchman’s roll of the liquid ‘r,’ so that it comes to the ear like ‘pur-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-rieu,’ with a gradually ascending inflection.”

13. Cats can get very mad

“The word ‘yew,’ when uttered as an explosive, is the Cat’s strongest expression of hatred, and a declaration of war… The word ‘yow’ means extermination from the face of the earth.”

14. Cats use more consonants than most give them credit for

“The disposition of the Cat to mouth her words has given the impression to many who have studied her utterances to conclude that most, if not all of her words begin with the sound of the letter ‘m,’ and this is an error which cost me months of wasted time.”

<em>Boys and Kitten</em> by Winslow Homer.
Boys and Kitten by Winslow Homer. Worcester Art Museum/Public Domain

15. Cats have variously intuitive words for body parts

“The word ‘pad’ means ‘foot,’ and ‘leo’ signifies ‘head.’ ‘Pro’ is the feline for ‘nail or claw,’ and ‘tut’ for ‘limb,’ while the body is called ‘papoo’ and the fur ‘oolie.’”

16. Cats care about money

“The word ‘zule’ means ‘millions,’ and a millionaire in the Cat language is a ‘zuluaim.’”

17. They really are so sarcastic about Noah Webster

“Noah Webster… was, I have no doubt, a very good and erudite man, but one subject to strong temptations.”

<em>The Bachelor Party</em> by Louis Wain.
The Bachelor Party by Louis Wain. Bonhams/Public Domain

18. Cat grammar involves nouns first, verbs later

“According to the primal order of speech and the manner of the construction of sentences in the Cat language, you will hear such utterances as these: ‘Milk give me,’ ‘Meat I want,’ ‘Mary I love,’ ‘Going out, my mistress?’ ‘Sick I am,’ ‘Happy are my babies.’

19. When speaking cat, body language is important

“There is the language of the ear, the tail, the limb, the body, the facial, including the mouth, the nose, the eye, the brow, the chin, the lip and the whiskers, the motion of the whole and the significant general appearance, as in the carriage while in motion, and the form when at rest.”

20. It’s very nice to speak cat

“I do not know of any sounds more soothing to the nerves of man as musical, or as musically correct in rhythm, intonation or melody, as the song of the Cat when at peace with all the world.”