Episode 12Garfield's Grasp & Sarcastic Creativity
00:00 / 18:20

Details and Transcript

References

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Transcript

To my extraordinary family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to Season two and twelve episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.

 

For those starting at this episode, welcome! A few new things to note this season. One thing is the Metaphorgins merch, if you would like your own shirt and/or mug as shown on the Metaphorigins instagram page, just shoot me a message on my website or instagram account. Any profits I make each month will go towards a local charity (ex. SPCA, Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation, and other suggestions). Another “feature” I will have this season is requests. In the second half of this season, I will have episodes dedicated to any expressions listeners of this podcast would like me to cover. For a request, please shoot me a message on again, my website or instagram.

 

Now, to show support if you like this sort of content, please make sure to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or whatever platform you are listening to this on, and follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, where I will be posting most of my updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. I will hold another draw on the 15th episode for a sweet Metaphorigins shirt, so look forward to that!

 

Okay. Today’s episode discusses an expression that, ironically, describes those who are seemingly incapable of any discussion whatsoever!

 

Let me set the scene: You hear the doorbell and rush to the front of your house. You’ve been waiting anxiously for this moment to come since your purchase on the Stanley Gibbons website last week. You fly open the door. It’s the postwoman, and she delightfully hands you your package. Boy, is it your lucky day or what?

 

As an active member of the Royal Philatelic Society of Canada, you tear open the package and reveal the prized stamps inside. You somehow managed to get a sheet of Penny Blacks, and individual Penny Reds with cancellation marks on the sock of the nose, all for under $1000! Incredible limited time deal, as you quite literally held your finger on the bid button until the very last second.

 

You walk over to your desk and take out your stockbook and extra postage stamp gum. You set these aside for the collectibles.

 

Not to forget the modern stamps you also bought. As a hardcore philatelist, you do most of your far communication via letters. None of this phone call or e-mail stuff. You pull out the envelopes containing letters to your family and friends, updating them on your life and recent stamp treasures. You stick the modern stamps on using their adhesive backs. The envelopes just need to be sealed, so you start lickin’.

 

Your noises of excitement wake up your roommate and their nosy cat, Parker, who enter the common room.

 

“What’s going on?” your roommate asks.

 

“Meow!” Parker the cat chimed in.

 

“I just got the stamps I ordered!” You exclaim, with your dry tongue hanging out as you seal your 10th letter. “Sorry for the noise. I’m going to add them to my collection.”

 

“Stamps… What is this, the 1900s? What’s so cool about stamps?”

 

You shake your head in disappointment. “It’s a piece of history. Some stamps have come from or were made specifically for, certain periods of human history. World War II, several British colonizations… They were made during the explosion of the great postal service.”

 

“Meow?” Parker stares blankly at you.

 

You continue. “Did you know that the world’s most valuable object, accounting for size and weight, is a stamp?”

 

“No kidding…” Your roommate says sarcastically as they walk the opposite way towards the kitchen.

 

“The one-cent magenta. Oh man, what I would do to get that…” You stare blankly at Parker.

 

“Meow!”

 

Parker takes this as a sign of aggression. He leaps on the desk, scattering your ordered stamps, stock book and stamp gum. What’s worse is that his right paw steps right into the gum container, sticking all over his paw. As you turn your head towards him, he lunges forward off the desk and onto your face, paws out, claws out, in full attack mode.

 

“Ahhh!” you scream. His left paw digs into the right side of your face. His right paw, sticky with postage stamp gum, clings to your dry, envelope-licking tongue. Licking tongue. “Hmm,” you think briefly, “so that’s where the Pokemon name comes from.”

 

Back to reality. “Help! Parker’s got my tongue!”

 

Your roommate, still in the kitchen, yells back, “What did you say?”

 

“I said Parker’s got my tongue!”

 

“What’s got your tongue?”

 

You realize how difficult it is to pronounce Ps without closing your mouth. You go about it another way.

 

“Cat got my tongue! Cat got my tongue!” You flail around, releasing Parker’s left paw from the side of your face. But Parker’s right paw is still attached.

 

“What? You need to speak up, I have the faucet on.”

 

After some time of flailing, your roommate says “Okay you’re being quiet now. Look, I wasn’t judging you or anything, there’s no reason to get upset.” They walk into the room. “Ohhhh. Cat got your tongue… I get it now.”

 

“Help!”

 

“Right.”

 

Your roommate dumps the glass of water they had in their hand on your face, releasing the sticky paw from your tongue.

 

“Hey, watch my stamps!”

I’m going to end it abrubtly right there because I have too many bloopers already. This is one of my favourite expressions as not only does it involve a cat, but also communicates an inability to communicate. But why would felines want this weird organ anyway?

 

What is the origin to the expression, “cat got your tongue”?

 

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Most of this information was obtained from different articles discussing several debated origins to this expression. All sources will be mentioned in the description.

 

I remember once, back when I was in elementary school, my teacher scolded my friend and I for having a snowball fight after school hours. This in itself was not particularly bad, plus it was outside of normal school hours. However, a parent of a child in the younger grades voiced that it was a problem, because we were having this snowball fight in close proximity to her child. Being told this, and that we would be getting detention, I decided to remain quiet for the whole day, not saying a word to anyone. Not my snowball fight friend, not my friends who asked about what was wrong, not the teachers who wanted my opinion (frankly, I probably could have argued out of it). I remember this so clearly, as it was met with my head councillor asking “What’s the matter, cat got your tongue? Speak.”

 

Like me, you’ve probably heard the expression “cat got your tongue” during a time when you were in trouble, or someone was in trouble. Likely a superior trying to get information out of those beneath them. Said to somebody who just wanted to be left alone. Oh how we miss such times when we were little.

 

As Lexico states, the expression is said to someone who remains silent when they are expected to speak. Equally, one could simply say, “Have you nothing to say?”, “Why aren’t you answering me?”, but c’mon that’s boring language.

 

I’ll just jump right out and say it. No one knows where this saying came from. The Oxford English Dictionary, pretty much the standard for etymology, states that the earliest citation of this expression comes from Henry Howard Harper’s novel Bob Hardwick published in 1911. Being at a loss for words, the narrator is asked this question by a woman during a meal: 

 

“Presently,” she said, “Has the cat got your tongue?”

“No,” I said, “I ain’t seen any cat.” Whereupon they all tittered.” 

 

Tittered, a great verb for a short laugh.

 

Another unofficial citation of the expression is listed by Phrase Finder, dating back to December 1859. An old Wisconsin newspaper, the Racine Democrat, printed the following:

 

“How I love a rainy day!” he said.

To this I made no answer. I loved a rainy day too, but I was not disposed to say so just then.

“Oh ho! The cat got your tongue has it?” was his next remark.

 

With no explanation, it is likely, then, that the expression would have been familiar to readers around this area during this time.

 

However, there are a few theories that stand out among the flock. Since there is no concrete evidence supporting any of the claims, I will just go through them in order of what I think is the coolest.

 

Here’s the first theory. Phrase Finder, Bloomsbury International, Grammarly, and the AllThatIsInteresting Blog recall the  fate of blasphemers or rebellious citizens in ancient Egypt. It is said that authorities would sever people’s tongues as punishment for their crimes, and feed these tongues to domesticated cats. Oh, what a treat.

 

These same sources also state the second theory, derived from the English Royal Navy. Sailors who made serious mistakes were flogged with whips. And these weren’t just any whips. At some point during your day, google a cat o’ nine tails and see what sailors were assaulted with. Commonly shortened to a cat, this weird weapon is hopefully not mistaken for when scrolling through Kijiji ads. The pain was so severe that victims remained silent after being hit for a long period of time. Hence a corrected saying, “has the cat got your tongue now?”.

 

Another potential origin to this expression could date as far back as the Middle Ages. Many Christians feared the work of witches, and even believed that black cats were witches themselves. As AllThatIsInteresting put it, “witches allegedly stole your tongue so you couldn’t speak and report their activities to authorities.” I guess they would be in cat form during this moment of theft.

 

It remains to be determined which origin story is the correct one. As Evan Morris from Word Detective has mentioned, cats have been used to concoct myths and metaphors since the beginning of human existence.

 

So here we find ourselves at another bitter ending to this segment, in which I cannot decisively state a consensus on the origin to “cat got your tongue” in the expression community. However, the imagery in which it evokes, the dark history behind many of its believed origins, and its common usage directed at children, provides an interesting perspective on how we may need to search for where words and sayings come from.

 

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In this science segment, I would like to talk about a certainly non-recent article published in Scientific American titled “The Surprising Benefits of Sarcasm”. The link to the article will be in the description.

 

Now sarcasm is a rather debated topic in the field of communication on whether it poses net positive or negative value. I myself am a huge fan of this form of expression, especially during a session of good ol’ banter among friends. Yet, it is all dependent on the circumstances: the location, who’s involved, what’s currently happening, etc. More relevant, can it be properly distinguished from the literal interpretation of said sentence? By saying, “those shoes look great!” compared to “those shoes look great…”, is tone the main comparative factor? These are the real questions.

 

How do you define sarcasm? dictionary.com describes it as “harsh or bitter derision or irony”. In other words, harshly mocking someone by conveying something that would mean the opposite of its literal meaning. If you think about it, that is really difficult to achieve. The amount of thinking going into forming a sarcastic remark, delivering said sarcastic remark, and understanding said sarcastic remark after its utterance takes an unusual amount of brain activity.

 

Back to the article. The 2015 publication was written by Dr. Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School. This is a modest introduction to Dr. Gino, as she is also a renowned author, and a leader in the research fields of productivity and creativity. She has authored or co-authored over 100 scientific publications on psychology, behavioural psychology, management practices and more. I’ll be referencing some of her studies here.

 

The article begins with a negative introduction on sarcasm. Dr. Gino states, “communications experts and marriage counsellors alike typically advise us to stay away from [sarcasm] … [which] expresses the poisonous sting of contempt, hurting others and harming relationships”. This is understandable, as too much of any form of mockery would certainly increase the amount of conflict within a relationship, romantic, friendly, or professional. But why specify this form of mockery?

 

One referenced study from 2009 found that participants rated sarcastic remarks as more condemning than literal criticisms. A similar study published in 2000 showed participants rated sarcastic comments as more impolite than literal criticisms. Yet, people (at least from the same background or general culture) can interpret sarcasm most of the time when done verbally. So we come to a question of why? If we can interpret sarcastic statements as derision, but perceive it as more condemning and impolite than their literal counterparts, why use this form of verbal irony for “destructive purposes”? A term used in Wikipedia’s page for sarcasm, which I just had to add.

 

This brings us to the crux of the article. Through Dr. Gino’s work, the usage of sarcasm in discussion increased ability in creativity tasks. Specifically, “the processes involved in initiating and delivering a sarcastic comment improved the creativity and cognitive functioning of both the commenter and the recipient… [which] only emerged when recipients picked up on the sarcasm behind the expresser’s message rather than taking mean comments at face value.”

 

And here we come full circle. I mentioned before about the odd amount of brain power required for interlocutors to utilize when sarcasm comes into conversation. Dr. Gino states, “To either create or understand sarcasm, tone must overcome the contradiction between the literal and actual meanings of the sarcastic expressions. This is a process that activates, and is facilitated by, abstraction, which in turn promotes creative thinking.” I would even take it a step further than that, as not only are we counting on our problem solving skills, linguistic skills, and sound cues, but also on body language, social relationships, environmental awareness, emotional intelligence, and more. So no, tone is not the main factor in sarcastic identification.

 

As the article suggests, it comes down to trust: “given the same content and tone, sarcasm expressed toward or received from someone we trust is less conflict provoking than sarcasm expressed toward or received from someone we distrust.” So despite Oscar Wilde’s suggestion that “Sarcasm is the highest form of intelligence”, remember that there is a time, place and person to which sarcasm can be conveyed in a mutually positive manner. 

 

It’s a great article that I would highly recommend giving a read.

 

Thanks for listening to this episode of… Metaphorigins. Remember to rate and subscribe for more episodes and to follow the podcast on Instagram for updates on the next draw. But until then, stay skeptical but curious.

 

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