Up to snuff
This curious phrase is used to indicate that someone or something is up to the required standard, although originally it seems to have indicated that someone was in the know and on the ball.
The use of snuff, powdered tobacco, which was inhaled through the nose was all the rage in the 17th century and beyond. Owing to its cost snuff only the rich could afford to indulge in this fashionable habit. So someone who was up to snuff was rich, smart and sophisticated enough to enjoy and appreciate the fine tobaccos used in snuff manufacture.
The phrase’s first recorded use appears in John Poole’s parody of Shakespeare’s Hamlet which was published in 1811 under the title, Hamelt Travestie. He wrote the lines, “He knows well enough The game we’re after: Zooks, he’s up to snuff” and “He is up to snuff, i.e. he is the knowing one”, clearly using the phrase in its original context of someone in the know.
Grose , in his dictionary published in 1823, lists the phrase, “up to snuff and a pinch above it” and defines it as meaning flash, ostentatious or, perhaps, sophisticated. It seems that the later meaning of being up to a required standard entered common usage at the turn of the 20th century.
Let the cat out of the bag
This phrase means to disclose a secret.
There are two competing claims for the origin of this phrase. The first relates to the shady dealings of market traders in the 16th century. Often they were guilty of trying to deceive their would-be customers by passing off one thing as another. Around the 1530s there was a tradition of selling livestock unseen or hidden in a sack. This underhanded trick was presumably so prevalent that it spawned a couple of phrases, the one we are considering and “pig in a poke”. Cats were often substituted for piglets and so to let the cat out of the bag was to disclose the salesman’s deception, literally.
The other theory is that the cat referred to was the cat o’ nine tails, the fearsome implement of punishment used to castigate recalcitrant sailors. It was commonly used and the custom of using it pre-dates the first appearance of the phrase, letting the cat out of the bag, in print. The whip had three strands of cord from which the rope lashes were made and each cord was made from three strands of string. The cat aspect no doubt relates to the scratches that the knotted end made on the victim’s back which resembled the scratches made by the claws of a cat. It may be that the cat o’nine tails when not deployed was kept in a bag but it is hard to see how the use of the phrase to indicate the disclosure of a secret could have come from this practice.
There are versions of the phrase in Dutch – ‘Een kat in de zak kopen’ – and German – – ‘Die Katze im Sack kaufen’ – which both are used in the context of buying false goods ie a cat in a bag.
The first published use of the phrase appears in the London Magazine of 1760 – “We could have wished that the author… had not let the cat out of the bag” and there are several other recorded usages in the 1760s and 1770s where the phrase is put in quotation marks, suggesting that it was newly coined around that time.
Our feline friends were commonly kept by our ancestors to try to make some headway in controlling the mouse and rat populations and cats appear in a number of English proverbs. The weight of evidence suggests that the phrase owes its origin to the shady practices of the Tudor market traders.