Where Does The Slang Cat Come From?

The slang term “cat” has a long history of usage and various meanings. Most commonly, it refers to a “stylish, classy, or excellent” person, especially in the context of jazz and hip hop culture. It emerged in the 1920s jazz era and has continued to evolve over the past century, developing different nuances and associations in various subgroups and eras.

Today, “cat” is used as a playful or complimentary term, but at times has also been associated with sexuality or drug use. Its origins can be traced to African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and it remains prevalent in hip hop culture. The term is sometimes used in a gendered way, referring specifically to stylish or cool men.

This article will explore the origins and changing definitions of this slang term over time, and its connections to music, culture, and language.

1920s Jazz Era

The slang term “cat” first emerged in the 1920s jazz scene. As jazz music rose in popularity, especially in major cities like New York and Chicago, a youth culture grew around it. Jazz musicians and fans developed their own slang, known as “jive talk.” According to The Smart Set, writings about jazz music from the era were full of hip slang like “hep cat.”

“Cat” was used to refer to jazz musicians themselves, especially the cool, stylish, talented ones. It was a term of admiration. Fans would say someone could “really lay it down” or was “solid” if they were an impressive, standout jazz player. The beatnik culture of the 1950s and 60s also embraced “cat” as part of their slang vocabulary. Overall, the rise of jazz coincided with “cat” entering the lexicon as a positive, complimentary way to refer to someone admirable or excellent in the jazz space.

Connection to Hipsters

The term “cat” became associated with hip young people during the Jazz Age of the 1920s. Jazz music was gaining popularity in urban areas like New York City, and a vibrant youth subculture grew around it. These young fans were called “hep cats” or just “cats.” According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “hep cat” referred to someone who was “hep” or “hip” – meaning fashionable, in the know, and part of the scene.1

The word “hep” itself may have come from African-American slang. 2 “Cat” was already slang for “man” or “guy.” So a “hep cat” described the kind of stylish, music-loving young man associated with jazz. Calling someone a “cool cat” meant they were part of the “in crowd” of the Jazz Age.

So the “cat” slang became tied to these hip, fashionable youth who followed the latest music and styles. Later movements like the Beatniks and hipsters inherited the slang. Today it continues to mean someone who is “in the know” or fashionably hip.

Used as a Compliment

“Cat” has long been used as a compliment or to refer to someone in an envious way. In the early 20th century, “cat” emerged in African American jazz culture as a synonym for someone who was hip or cool. To call someone a “cool cat” was a term of admiration, indicating they were stylish, smooth, and had enviable talents or abilities.

According to the idiom website Wordscoach, to call someone a “cool cat” today means “You admire and like their attitude, style and behavior.”1 On forums discussing etymology and slang, users note how their parents or grandparents would use “cool cat” or “hep cat” as compliments when they were growing up in the 1960s. One user said it was a way to call someone “hip, trendy and fashionable.”2 So “cat” has long served as a positive, feel-good way to compliment someone’s impressive style or abilities.

Link to Beatnik Subculture

The term “cat” became popular with the Beat Generation in the 1940s and 1950s. The Beatniks, as they were also known, were associated with jazz, poetry, and rejecting mainstream values. According to The Textuality of Soulwork: Jack Kerouac’s Quest for Spontaneous Prose, “cat” was slang for a beatnik hipster, like a jazz musician or poet.

“Cat” conveyed a sense of cool, hip non-conformity that the Beatniks valued. They used the term to refer to each other and things they found interesting or avant-garde. Calling someone a “cool cat” was a compliment among the Beat Generation. Their slang helped define their unique subculture and mindset.

Sexualization of the Term

The term “cat” has a history of being used with sexual connotations. In the early 20th century, “cat” was sometimes used as a synonym for prostitute or as a derogatory term for a promiscuous woman. This usage linked back to the word “cattery” meaning brothel. Using “cat” as a sexually charged insult or catcall reinforces the objectification of women.

The word also took on sexually suggestive meanings in phrases like “sex kitten” or “hey there sexy cat.” When used by men toward women they do not know, “hey cat” catcalls are an unwelcome sexualization. Feminist movements have worked to curb harassment like this in public spaces. Nonetheless, some misogynistic communities continue to promote catcalling despite criticism that it can make women feel unsafe or degraded.[1]

Usage in Black Culture

The slang term “cat” has a long history in African American Vernacular English (AAVE). It emerged in the early 1900s as a shortening of the word “catty,” which referred to someone who is energetic, clever, and street-smart. According to the Encyclopedia, the roots of “cat” stretch back to the Wolof language of Africa, where “hepi” meant “to see” and “hipi” meant “to open one’s eyes.”

In the 1920s, “cat” became popularized in the jazz scene by African American musicians. Jazz artists started using “cat” as a shorthand way to refer to each other. By the 1930s and 40s, “cat” was firmly entrenched in the lexicon of jazz and swing culture. Musicians would use phrases like “Hey cats, let’s jam!” or “That cat can really swing.” According to jazz historian Robert O’Meally, “cat” conveyed both admiration for someone’s musical talent and membership in the hip underground subculture of jazz.

Over time, “cat” evolved beyond just referring to jazz musicians. It became a popular term in the broader African American community to refer to a smart, stylish, streetwise man. Calling someone a “cool cat” or “hep cat” signaled approval and indicated that person was culturally hip and in the know.

Hip Hop Influences

The term “cat” became very popular in hip hop culture and rap lyrics starting in the 1990s. Hip hop artists used “cat” as a playful synonym for women in a sexual context. For example, Notorious B.I.G. used the term in his song “Big Poppa” with the lyrics “I love it when you call me Big Pop-pa/Throw your hands in the air, if you’s a true playa” (source). Many other rappers like Snoop Dogg, Nelly, and Too $hort also used “cat” regularly in their lyrics during the ’90s. Lines like “Cats flippin’ looking for the dice man/His name is Snoop Dogg and he’s all the way live, man” were meant to represent cool, suave men looking for women.

Rappers also started referring to themselves as “cats” meaning they were smooth, street-wise, and cool. Hip hop slang switched to “cat” instead of “guy” or “dude” when addressing each other. This trend of using “cat” as a complimentary term for a man’s prowess carried over into the 2000s with artists like The Game featuring lyrics like “I’m a six fo’ Impala sliding cat” (source). The use of “cat” within hip hop lyrics and culture gave the term a big popularity boost over the last 30 years.

Gendered Use of the Term

The term “cat” has historically had different connotations when used to describe men versus women. When referring to a man, “cat” often carries a positive or playful meaning, implying a smooth, sophisticated, jazz-loving hipster type. This usage dates back to the 1920s jazz era, when “hip cats” referred to cool, nonconformist men on the jazz scene.

In contrast, when applied to women, “cat” has often been used more pejoratively, implying a spiteful, gossiping, or promiscuous woman. Some sources suggest “catty” emerged in the 1930s from “cat,” referring to an aggressive, clawing female. The term “sex kitten” also connotes a seductive woman using her feminine wiles.

This gendered distinction persisted into the 21st century, with “tomcat” remaining a masculine term for a virile, promiscuous man, while woman were more frequently labelled negatively as “cats.” However, modern usage has moved toward more gender-neutral applications of “cat” to refer to stylish, charismatic people of any gender.

Modern Usage

Today, “cat” continues to be used as a slang term in various contexts. Here are some of the common modern usages:

As a term of endearment or compliment: Calling someone “cat” can be a playful or affectionate way to refer to friends, partners, or loved ones. It suggests the positive feline qualities like independence, grace, agility and playfulness.

Referring to style/appearance: “Cat” can describe someone who is stylish, classy, or well-put-together in their appearance. For example, “She was looking very cat in that outfit.”

Coolness and confidence: “Cat” can be used to denote someone smooth, charismatic, laidback and self-assured. For example, “He’s a real cool cat.”

Woman/girl: Though somewhat less common today, “cat” can still be used to refer to a woman or girlfriend in casual slang. This usage stems from the jazz era term “hep cat” being shortened to “cat.”

With words like “fat” or “phat”: In hip hop culture, combining “cat” with terms like “phat” creates slang like “phat cat” to describe someone excellent or impressive.

Associated with cannabis culture: Terms like “catnip” and “cool cat” sometimes infer marijuana or cannabis use in modern slang.

As an insult: While less common, “cat” can also be used negatively to imply fickle, spiteful, petty or malicious behavior like the perceived temperament of a feral cat. For example, “Don’t be such a cat.”

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