The other day I was in a meeting with a co-worker brainstorming estate planning strategies for a client when he said “there may be more than one way to skin this cat.” I knew what he meant because I was familiar with the phrase but unfortunately an unwelcome image of actually skinning a cat popped into my head. What a strange phrase.
There is more than one way to skin a cat is an idiom which means it is a phrase whose meaning cannot be determined from the literal meanings of the words it is made of. Even if you know what each word in an idiomatic phrase means, you won’t know what the meaning is unless you are familiar with the expression.
Here are some common idioms and their meaning and origins:
1. There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Cat
This idiom means that there are usually multiple ways to achieve a goal. But, if you stop and think about it, this is a pretty gruesome phrase. Why in the world would you ever skin a cat? And if you were to do so, is there much variation in how you could do it?
The first published use of this phrase is from the 1854 short story Way down East; or, Portraitures of Yankee Life by Seba Smith: “This is a money digging world of ours; and, as it is said, ‘there are more ways than one to skin a cat,’ so are there more ways than one of digging for money”. The way the phrase is just thrown out in the story, it likely was already a well-established idiom. How this phrase came into use and what it means isn’t known with certainty. Some suggest that it refers to skinning a catfish, but there is no definitive support for that meaning.
2. You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It Too
If I have my cake why can’t I eat it? This makes no sense on its face.
What this idiom means in practice is that if there are two good options you can’t pick both of them simultaneously — you must choose between them. It’s a useful phrase because such situations come up all the time.
The way to think about his one is that “you cannot simultaneously retain your cake and eat it — Once the cake is eaten, it is gone.” Source. This actually makes some sense — if you consume your cake it is in fact gone.
3. Beating a Dead Horse
Personally, I don’t beat live horses and the one time I encountered a dead horse I definitely didn’t beat him (I helped bury him which is an interesting story . . . ).
This idiom means that there is no reason to bring up a previously settled issue or that a particular effort is a waste of time. This phrase likely comes from 18th-century horse racing where beating a horse to make it go faster was common. If the horse was dead, however, beating it wouldn’t make it go any faster because it is dead. (Duh.)
4. By the Skin of Your/My Teeth
Do your teeth have skin? I don’t think mine do. I’ve checked many times over the years and have even asked my dentist. No skin.
This idiom means barely escaping something or barely achieving something. For example, I might say “the security line was so long that I had to run to the gate and only made my plane by the skin of my teeth.”
The origin of this phrase is from the Book of Job in the Old Testament where the devil forces Job to undertake a series of tough trials until he is rescued by God. In Book of Job 19:20 Job says “My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.” This was translated from ancient Hebrew and what it means isn’t known — maybe something was lost in translation. Some speculate it refers to teeth enamel.
5. Raining Cats and Dogs
To say “it’s raining cats and dogs” just means that the rain is coming down heavily. The idea that animals would fall from the sky is so ridiculous that it’s a super fun phrase.
The origins of this idiom are unknown. There are guesses such as maybe the antagonistic relationship between cats and dogs is a metaphor for stormy weather, but there is no evidence that this is the origin of the meaning. Sometimes concepts just strike a chord and go viral.
6. Catch Lightning in a Bottle
We’ve had a lot of thunderstorms over the past week in Missouri and I’ve spent hours running around with a bottle trying to catch lightning. Why? Just because it sounds cool. Dangerous? Possibly.
This crazy phrase means to accomplish a nearly impossible task or to capture something that is elusive. Like many idioms, the origins of this one are murky. Some think it refers to Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with lightning and kites. Others think it is a shorthand reference to catching lightning bugs. Who knows.
7. The Elephant in the Room
This phrase certainty paints an interesting picture. It means “An important and obvious topic, which everyone present is aware of, but which isn’t discussed, as such discussion is considered to be uncomfortable.” Source.
This idiom is relatively recent, likely dating back to the 1935 Broadway Musical “Jumbo” in which the main character is stopped by a policeman while walking an elephant. When questioned about why he is leading an elephant, the response to the policeman is “What elephant?” Maybe this gave rise to the idea of ignoring the obviously large elephant in close proximity. The phrase entered common parlance beginning in the 1950s.