Cats play the central role in some proverbs. It is not always easy to clarify where the idioms come from. So it is with the expression "let the cat out of the bag". Read below what explanations are available - and simply decide for yourself what seems more plausible to you.
Buy the cat in a sack and let it out of the sack at home
The first explanation is the continuation of the expression "buy a pig in a poke". This phrase is used when someone buys something without first checking it and without knowing whether it is worth what he paid for it.
The origin of this saying probably goes back to the fact that people used to go shopping in markets. If they bought a piglet, a chicken or a rabbit, unfair sellers would occasionally exchange the valuable animal for a stray cat - which from the buyer's point of view was hardly worth anything.
When he got home, still believing he had bought a valuable animal, and then opened the box, he let the cat out of the bag. The secret - that he had been ripped off by the seller - was out.
Critics of this theory point out that a stray cat cannot be put in a sack calmly and peacefully and then carried around until the buyer has arrived home. It would rather hiss, yelp, mumble and growl - all sounds that even the most idiotic buyer could hardly believe to be a piglet, chicken or rabbit.
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Let the cat out of the bag to punish disobedient sailors
Another theory says that the phrase has its origin in seafaring. From time to time, the captain of a ship had to discipline and punish seafarers who did not follow the rules or refused to obey orders. At that time - in the 18th century - handling on the ship was not exactly squeamish.
As a punishment, disobedient sailors were flogged - with a so-called nine-tailed cat. The captain kept this whip in a sack with nine straps. Letting the cat out of the bag meant very unpleasant consequences for the punished sailor.
With this explanation, however, the question remains why a secret is revealed when you let the cat out of the bag. After all, all the sailors knew what lot to expect if they angered the captain.
There is still an extension of the theory here: Accordingly, the captain only revealed how many lashes awaited the unfortunate sailor after he had taken the nine-tailed cat out of the bag. So this would relate to revealing a secret.