- Paul Anthony Jones
Turn the cat in the pan
(v.) to pass on information claimed to have been heard from someone else, but in fact made up yourself
If you turn the cat in the pan, or turn cat-in-pat, then you pass on erroneous information that you’ve in fact made up yourself.
That, at least, is according to the Wilkinson Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors, which defines this expression as to “pass on information of your own starting, as if it had some other origin or authority.” Or, as an 1868 Book of Cats explains it, “when that which a man says to another, he says it as if another had said to him.”
This is just one of any number of ways of using and interpreting this phrase, however, and it’s likely that over the seven centuries or so that it has been in use in English it has been applied to a variety of different situations and contexts.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “to reverse the order of things so dexterously [sic] as to make them appear the very opposite of what they really are.” In another context, it explains it as “to change one’s position, change sides, from motives of interest, etc.” Or, as one nineteenth century dictionary more succinctly puts it, “to act turncoat”—or in the words of another, “to be a traitor.” No matter its precise interpretation though, it seems that there is certainly an allusion here to some kind of underhand or perfidious manoeuvre. So what does all that have to do with cats and pans?
One suitably colourful etymological explanation here claims this phrase refers to a tribe of people called the Catipani, who apparently once lived in Calabria and Apulia in the far south of Italy, and who “got an ill name by reason of their perfidy.” There’s certainly a precedent for groups of people from ancient times giving their names to certain questionable characteristics (we’re looking at you, Abydos and Laodicea), but this explanation is problematic—not least because the name Catipani was not that of a people or a tribe, but the holders of a legislative office. As a result, this explanation seems something of a stretch.
Another theory is that this expression doesn’t actually concern cats at all, but rather cates. A cate is a delicacy, or a choice food or dainty, and derives from an old Middle English word, acate, for provisions or purchased supplies. According to some versions of this tale, that word was later applied (perhaps with some influence from cake) to thin flatbreads or pancakes, cooked large round pan. Because these cates would have to be turned halfway through cooking to allow both sides to be cooked evenly, this created an image of something turning from one opinion to another—or, by extension, behaving duplicitously or unreliably.
So is this cat is actually a cate? It’s an intriguing theory, but it’s still not a particularly convincing one. Evidence for cate as a word for a specific type of food is rare, and the written evidence seems to suggest it was always a cat being referred to here.
So what is the origin here? Alas, this is one of those questions that we’re going to have to leave unanswered.