Nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs

A cat will suck the very breath out of a baby and kill it.

No, wait. If a cat jumps over a grave, the occupant will rise again, vampire-like.

Or is it that a cat will steal your soul?

Whatever it is, Southerners have traditionally been deeply suspicious of cats. Mawmaw Atkins refused to even be near one. Black, white, spotted, or sporting the mark of Mary her ownself, cats are bad. So it should come as no surprise that cats turn up in a number of Southern idioms.

Nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. If you’ve ever stepped on a cat’s tail, you’ve heard the cat’s blood-curdling yowl and quite possibly sensed that the cat finds it be be a painful experience — as painful as the scratches you got on your leg as a result of your carelessness. That’s why you can imagine that a cat, already jumpy by nature, would become extremely agitated to find itself in a roomful of tail-crushers.

High as a cat’s back. When a cat is threatened, it will arch its back, becoming almost as tall as it is long. My Great-aunt Lois, who came of age during the Great Depression, used this one all the time in reference to the cost of something. “Did you see the price of bread at the Pig? It was high as a cat’s back. I’m going to Greer’s.”

Don’t let the cat out of the bag. Imagine, if you will, that you are holding a cat in a paper sack, the brown paper opening cinched in your clenched fist. You set the bag in the dirt, let go, and that cat shoots out like greased lightning. Well, that’s what happens when you tell a secret. Once you let it’s out there, there’s no telling where it will end up.

You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a(n)  ______. This never makes much sense to me, and I’ll tell you why. If you pick up a dead cat carcass and start swinging it around by the tail, depending on how long that cat has been ripening, it’s going to fling apart and spread cat bits on everything. Then you ain’t got nothing but a mess. Nevertheless, if you’re in the midst of a lot of whatever the thing is and you swing anything around, you’re likely to hit it. You get the drift.

So weak he couldn’t pull a greasy string out of a cat’s ass. My husband shared this gem with me. While usually used in reference to a person of little strength, he heard it when he was in high school in reference to a car — particularly an early 70s Plymouth Satellite. It was blue with flames painted on the hood and front end, skinny drag tires on the front and racing slicks on the back (“big and littles” I’m told they’re called), and a pistol grip shifter. My 50-something-year-old husband reverted back to his 15-year-old self while describing this “cool-ass street machine.” It would be a grievous understatement to say that Husband and his high school friend were merely in awe of this customized automobile. That’s why one night when they were all out cruising and they ran into the dude who owned the car, they were asking him all kinds of questions about it. Proud of his handiwork, he bragged to them that before he replaced the stock motor in the car with a “blown HEMI,” “it was so weak it couldn’t pull a greasy string out of a cat’s ass.”

There you go.

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