Understanding the Idiom: "cat in the meal-tub" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English

When it comes to understanding idioms, it can be quite challenging as they often have a figurative meaning that is different from their literal interpretation. One such idiom that has been around for centuries is “cat in the meal-tub”. This phrase may seem strange at first, but it holds a deeper meaning that has been passed down through generations.

The Origin of “Cat in the Meal-Tub”

Like many idioms, “cat in the meal-tub” has an interesting backstory. The phrase dates back to 16th century England when people stored their grain supplies in large wooden tubs called meal-tubs. These tubs were often kept indoors to protect them from rodents and other pests.

However, cats were known for sneaking into these tubs to catch mice or eat some grain themselves. When someone discovered a cat inside a meal-tub, they would exclaim “there’s a cat in the meal-tub!” This soon became an expression used to describe any unexpected surprise or unwelcome guest.

Interpretations and Usage

Today, “cat in the meal-tub” is still used as an idiom with multiple interpretations depending on context. It can refer to something unexpected or surprising happening unexpectedly or someone who is not welcome somewhere they shouldn’t be.

For example:

– When I arrived at work today, my boss told me he was quitting his job! That was certainly a cat in the meal-tub moment.

– I was having a nice dinner with my family until my ex-boyfriend showed up uninvited. He’s always been a cat in the meal-tub.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “cat in the meal-tub”

The idiom “cat in the meal-tub” is a phrase that has been used for centuries to describe a situation where someone or something is hidden or disguised among others. The origins of this idiom are not clear, but it can be traced back to early English literature.

During medieval times, cats were often seen as pests that would steal food from people’s homes. To prevent this, people would store their food in large wooden tubs with tight-fitting lids. However, sometimes cats would manage to sneak into these tubs and eat the food inside.

Over time, the phrase “cat in the meal-tub” came to represent any situation where something was hidden or disguised among other things. This could refer to a person who was pretending to be someone else, an object that was camouflaged among its surroundings, or even an idea that was concealed within a larger concept.

Today, this idiom is still commonly used in English-speaking countries as a way of describing situations where something is not quite what it seems. It serves as a reminder of our history and how language evolves over time.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “cat in the meal-tub”

When it comes to idioms, their usage and variations can vary greatly depending on the context and culture. The same goes for the idiom “cat in the meal-tub”. This idiom is used to describe a situation where someone or something is hiding a secret or doing something dishonest. However, there are different variations of this idiom that exist in different parts of the world.

One variation of this idiom is “a cat among pigeons”, which means causing trouble or chaos in a peaceful situation. Another variation is “a cat on hot bricks”, which describes someone who is anxious or nervous about something. In some cultures, such as Japan, there is an equivalent phrase that translates to “a fox in disguise”.

The usage of this idiom can also differ depending on the context. For example, it may be used jokingly among friends or colleagues to describe someone who has been caught doing something they shouldn’t have been doing. On the other hand, it may be used more seriously in legal or political contexts when referring to corruption or deceit.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “cat in the meal-tub”


  • Elephant in the room
  • Skeletons in the closet
  • Monkey on your back
  • Burden on your shoulders
  • Trouble brewing

These phrases all share a common theme of a hidden problem or issue that is causing discomfort or anxiety. They can be used interchangeably with “cat in the meal-tub” depending on context and personal preference.


  • Clean slate
  • Fresh start
  • New beginning/li>
  • Blank canvas/li>
  • Innocent until proven guilty/li>

These phrases represent opposite ideas to “cat in the meal-tub,” conveying a sense of starting anew without any past issues or problems. They can be useful when trying to shift focus away from negative situations.

Cultural Insights:

The origin of “cat in the meal-tub” is unclear but it has been used since at least 1768. The phrase likely originated from an actual cat hiding inside a container of food, contaminating it and rendering it unfit for consumption. This idiom is commonly used today to describe a hidden problem or issue that could cause trouble if not addressed promptly.

In some cultures, cats are seen as symbols of bad luck or misfortune while others view them as symbols of good fortune and prosperity. Therefore, depending on cultural background, using this idiom may have different connotations for different people.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “cat in the meal-tub”

Exercise 1: Conversation Practice

Find a partner and engage in a conversation where you use the idiom “cat in the meal-tub” appropriately. Try to incorporate it naturally into your speech without sounding forced or awkward. Take turns using the idiom and providing examples of situations where it could be used.

Exercise 2: Writing Practice

Write a short story or anecdote that includes the idiom “cat in the meal-tub”. Make sure to use it correctly within your writing and provide enough context for readers to understand its meaning. Share your writing with others and ask for feedback on how effectively you incorporated the idiom.

Idiomatic Expression Literally Means Contextual Meaning
“Cat in the meal-tub” A cat hiding among food supplies Something suspicious or questionable hidden among something seemingly innocent or harmless.

The above table provides a quick reference guide for understanding both literal and contextual meanings of “cat in the meal-tub”. Use this as a tool when practicing exercises one and two, but also try not to rely too heavily on memorization – true mastery comes from natural usage!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “cat in the meal-tub”

When using idioms, it is important to understand their meanings and usage in context. The idiom “cat in the meal-tub” may seem straightforward, but there are common mistakes that people make when using it.

Mistake #1: Taking the Idiom Literally

The phrase “cat in the meal-tub” does not actually refer to a literal cat being inside a tub of food. Rather, it is an expression used to describe a hidden or secret problem or issue that could cause trouble later on. It is important not to take this idiom literally and instead use it appropriately in context.

Mistake #2: Overusing the Idiom

While idioms can add color and personality to language, overusing them can be distracting and confusing for listeners or readers who are unfamiliar with them. It is important to use idioms sparingly and only when they add value to communication.

  • Avoid using too many idioms within one sentence or paragraph.
  • Consider your audience’s familiarity with idiomatic expressions before using them.
Leave a Reply

;-) :| :x :twisted: :smile: :shock: :sad: :roll: :razz: :oops: :o :mrgreen: :lol: :idea: :grin: :evil: :cry: :cool: :arrow: :???: :?: :!: