The Purrfect Nickname. What Does “Cat” Stand For?

An acronym is an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of a phrase or name. Some well-known examples are NASA, FBI, and KFC. An abbreviation is simply a shortened form of a word or phrase. Some common abbreviations are Dr., lbs., and etc.

The main difference between an acronym and an abbreviation is that an acronym forms a new word from the initial letters of words, while an abbreviation is just a shortened form of an existing word or phrase. For example, “laser” is an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” LASER forms a new word and is pronounced as its own word. On the other hand, “lbs.” is just a shortened form of the word “pounds” and you would say the letters “l-b-s” when reading it aloud.

The slang term “cat” is an abbreviation of the word “catalog.” It originated in the 1960s among jazz musicians, derived from the phrase “catalog of hip speech.” Musicians would use the latest hip slang and jargon found in these “catalogs” or guides to speaking in a hip manner. The abbreviated form “cat” emerged as a compact way to refer to these hip guides and the hip language itself.

a jazz musician holding a hip catalog

History of the Term Cat

The term “cat” meaning someone who is cool, hip or in the know dates back to the early 20th century. According to the Mental Floss article “Jive Talkin’: The Origins of Cool Dudes, Groovy Chicks and Hip Cats”, one theory suggests it originated in the opium dens of New Orleans where cats who were “on the hip” or “hep” had inside knowledge about these secretive establishments (source). The word “hep” later morphed into “hip” and was adopted into hipster slang.

Another theory is that “cat” was originally used in the jazz scene of the 1920s and 30s, referring to expert musicians as “cool cats.” According to the Quora thread “When did Americans first use slang to equate cats with coolness as in the phrase cool cat?”, the first documented usage of “cool cat” was in the 1930s within the context of jazz culture, describing someone stylish and confident (source). The blog “This week’s word: “hep-cat”” also notes the synonymity between “hep cat” and “cool cat” in jazz slang of the 1930s and 40s.

So the origins of “cat” meaning someone hip or in the know seems to derive from early 20th century African American and jazz subcultures, first using terms like “hep cat” and later morphing into “cool cat.” From there it spread into wider use and became popularized hipster slang.

Usage in African American Culture

african american jazz musicians performing

“Cat” as slang emerged in the early 20th century within African American jazz culture, often referring to hip and stylish men. According to the Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History, a “hep cat” in the jazz era referred to “a jazz aficionado in the marijuana-using urban subculture of the 1940s and 1950s.” The term “cat” became associated with being smooth, cool and in the know.

This jazz slang was later adopted into hip hop culture, as rappers referred to themselves and others as “cool cats” or simply “cats.” According to a Redditor in r/hiphop101, “‘Cat’ is kind of jazz era slang for guys.. that has been used since to evoke the same kind of feeling.” So when rappers refer to “cats,” they are intentionally evoking the jazz era meaning – someone who is hip, cool and stylish. The slang term remains prevalent in hip hop today as rappers connect themselves back to the original jazz roots of the culture.

Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History
Reddit r/hiphop101

Usage in Beat Culture

In the 1950s, the word “cat” became associated with the Beat Generation and writers like Jack Kerouac as hip slang. As the Beat movement developed in the postwar years, the term “cool cat” came to describe the jazz-loving, poetry-writing, black-wearing beatniks and hipsters who gathered in cities like San Francisco and New York.

the beat poet jack kerouac typing

Kerouac’s novels, including On the Road, featured hip characters who frequently used the word “cat.” As Ann Charters notes, “‘Cat’ was Kerouac’s favorite word for a guy.” Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady were considered the originators of using “cat” to mean a hip person during the Beat era. The Beats were also known for their love of jazz, and “cat” had already been established in the jazz scene as a shorthand for a musician.

The Beat usage of “cat” spread quickly in the underground subculture. Calling someone a “cool cat” or referring to your friends as “cats” signified you were part of the hip scene. As the Beat movement gained notoriety in the mainstream, the slang term “cat” became more widespread in American culture through the 1950s and early 1960s.

Cat as Hip Slang

The term “cat” first emerged as hip slang in the jazz scene of the 1930s and 1940s. Jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong began using “cat” to refer to a man who was hip and in the know [1]. It connoted someone who was smooth, cool, and appreciated the jazz subculture. From the jazz world, use of “cat” expanded into the post-WWII Beat generation’s counter-cultures. The Beats embraced “cat” as a way to establish an in-group identity and status as a hip subversive.

As “cat” evolved through the 1950s and 1960s, it continued to reference men who were part of the latest waves of cool, rebellious youth countercultures. Whether it was the Beats, early rockers like Elvis Presley, or hipsters, “cat” signified a hip guy who was “in the know” about the alternative scenes and fashions of the time. Its connotations of cool detachment and subtle defiance of mainstream norms remained consistent.

Regional Variations of Cat Slang

The slang term “cat” is used in different ways across various English-speaking regions. In the United States, “cat” is often used as hip urban slang to refer to a cool, streetwise guy. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this usage originated in jazz culture in the 1930s, referring to hip jazz musicians. It became more widespread in African American Vernacular English during the 1950s and 60s.[1]

In New York City, “cat” may refer to a slick, smooth-talking man. In the midwest, it can mean a fellow, man, or guy. On the West Coast, “cool cat” is common slang for someone who is laidback and stylish. In the south, “cat” is less commonly used in this way.

In Britain and Australia, “cat” is slang for a prostitute or promiscuous woman. This usage dates back to the 1600s and may originate from comparing cats in heat to women’s sexual behavior.[2] So while Americans use “cat” for hip men, the British tend to use it for loose women.

These regional differences show how slang evolves distinctive meanings in different cultural contexts over time. The variations of “cat” illustrate the creativity of informal language across the English-speaking world.

Cat in Modern Slang

The word “cat” continues to be used in slang, especially in music and pop culture. In rap, hip hop, and R&B lyrics, “cat” is often used to refer to a cool, streetwise man. For example, rapper Future uses it in songs like “Move That Dope” (“Where the real cats, where you at?”) and singers like Ella Mai include it in lyrics (“Ain’t no half cat in me”). Why does everyone in All American use the word “cat”?

a modern rapper saying lyrics with cat

“Cat” can also be used as a verb, meaning “to see, spot, or notice.” This usage shows up in hip hop lyrics and slang phrases like “I cat you” or “cat that.” Overall, “cat” continues to signify someone who is hip, cool, and street savvy in modern urban slang.

Criticism and Controversy

The use of “cat” as hip slang has faced criticism over the years for perceived sexism or exclusion. Some argue that referring to men or guys as “cats” promotes male-centric language. The term’s roots in African American culture of the jazz era also mean its use has strong generational and cultural connotations. Younger generations may view “cat” as outdated slang of older generations. Meanwhile, use of “cat” in predominantly white contexts outside of jazz or hip hop culture may be seen as cultural appropriation by some.

There are also concerns that “cat” as slang sets up a male gendered dichotomy, with “cat” referring to men and “chick” or “broad” referring to women. This perceived gendering in language could promote exclusion or minimize woman. Others counter that “cat” is gender neutral and no more sexist than terms like “guys.” As slang evolves over time, the debate continues around whether “cat” as a term for cool males is harmless hip lingo, or exclusionary and sexist.

Cat vs Hip

The terms “cat” and “hip” have some overlap in slang usage referring to cool, stylish, or in the know, but also have distinct meanings.

According to NPR, “hip” originated earlier, in the early 1900s jazz era, whereas “cat” emerged later around the 1930s. “Hip” connoted being in the know or up on the latest trends, often with a negative connotation of pretentiousness, whereas “cat” was more associated with appreciation of hip black culture and jazz music.

“Cat” was particularly used in the African American community to refer to a stylish, cool, streetwise man, sometimes extending to women as “kitty cats.” It conveyed a sense of authenticity. “Hip” was more mainstream and commercialized, lacking the underground vibe of “cat.”

By the 1950s “hip” became mainstream and “square” was its antithesis. “Cat” held on longer in the jazz community before becoming quaint and outdated by the late 20th century. Nowadays, “hip” endures in phrases like “hipster” but “cat” sounds antiquated except for purposely vintage slang.


In summary, the term “cat” has a rich history in African American and Beatnik slang, where it was used to refer to a hip, cool, or groovy person. Though the exact origins are unclear, “cat” emerged in jazz circles in the 1920s and 30s to describe musicians with a slick, smooth style. By the 1940s and 50s, it had become firmly entrenched in the hip vernacular of the Beat generation and African American communities. Over time, “cat” evolved from an in-group term to a more mainstream slang word, though often with a slightly negative connotation of being overly stylish or aloof. Understanding the origins and evolution of slang terms like “cat” provides important insights into African American culture and the development of modern hip lingo. As slang continues to evolve, studying important terms like “cat” helps preserve cultural history and illuminate the impact of marginalized communities on mainstream language.

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