“Letting the cat out of the bag” and “the wise cat” are two phrases that we hear often enough in daily life. Where and how the phrases originated have always intrigued me.
It appears that “letting the cat out of the bag” has historical origins. According to Wisegeek, during Medieval times, at farmer’s markets where livestock were sold live in sacks, some unscrupulous sellers would replace the livestock with cats which were a-plenty. The ploy worked if the sack were not opened until after the transaction was complete. If a wise buyer opened the bag early enough and discovered the switch, then the cat was let out of the bag too early and the secret is divulged.
The origin of “the wise cat” eludes me, however. The oldest reference I found was a fable credited to Aesop (c. 620-564 BCE) who may or may not have existed at all.
The Fox and the Cat
A Fox was boasting to a Cat of its clever devices for escaping its enemies. “I have a whole bag of tricks,” he said, “which contains a hundred ways of escaping my enemies.”
“I have only one,” said the Cat; “but I can generally manage with that.” Just at that moment they heard the cry of a pack of hounds coming towards them, and the Cat immediately scampered up a tree and hid herself in the boughs. “This is my plan,” said the Cat. “What are you going to do?” The Fox thought first of one way, then of another, and while he was debating the hounds came nearer and nearer, and at last the Fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds and soon killed by the huntsmen. Miss Puss, who had been looking on, said:
“Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon.”