There are more ways to skin a cat
This phrase is usually deployed to indicate that there is more than one way of doing something. The earliest printed usage of this phrase appeared in Seb Smith’s The Money Diggers of 1840, “there are more ways than one to skin a cat, so there are more ways than one of digging for money”. His reference implies that it was a well-known proverb.
Cat skinning, almost certainly for the moggy’s fur for women’s apparel, was practised before 1840 as this exchange at the committee taking evidence before the publication of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals bill of 1832 amply demonstrates. “and if I understand you, you saw this man skinning the cat alive? Yes. You are perfectly satisfied that those cats were skinned alive. I should think so”. At the very least there must have been two ways of skinning a cat – when it was alive and when it was dead.
The difficulties of skinning a cat alive were amply illustrated by this passage in The Leisure Hour of 1879 in which the skills and techniques of Dutch cat-killers are discussed. “It is a fallacy to suppose that cats are skinned alive. In the first place, to skin a cat when alive would be utterly impossible; and, secondly, it does not make any difference in the quality of the skin. The origin of the fallacy is probably that a cat is easier skinned immediately after death than if allowed to become rigid”.
Fifteen years later Charles Kingsley in Westward Ho! was more concerned with killing than skinning a cat, “there are more ways of killing a cat than choking it with cream”. Other variants included killing the cat with butter. Nearly half a century later Mark Twain, though, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) used our phrase in the figurative sense we are familiar with, “she was wise, subtle and knew more than one way to skin a cat”.
Interestingly, the concept of there being a number of ways of doing something has a long pedigree whilst the illustrative example and object have been interchangeable over the centuries, spawning a number of phrases, some of which are now in disuse. In 1709 John Needham in a sermon wrote, “that the command of trying the Spirits gives them a Licence of frequenting all Assemblies; and that there are more ways to Heaven than one”, sentiments you might expect from a clergyman. Elijah Fenton three years later gave a new twist in his The Fair Nun, A Tale, “well! More ways may be found than one,/ to kill a witch who will not drown”. And in 1721 John Vanburgh wrote in his comedy, Esop, “there are more ways to the woods than one, you see”.
An even earlier example was to be found in John Ray’s collection of English Proverbs of 1678 where he referenced the phrase, “there are more ways to kill a dog than hanging”. Some of our American friends claim the cat to be a catfish which has to be skinned before cooking.
And how many ways are there to skin a cat? If we rule out whilst alive on the grounds of cruelty and difficulty there are probably just two – either via the ventral (belly) side or from the dorsal or backside. The skin is looser at the abdomen which makes it easier to lift from the underlying muscle. Rats and squirrels are much easier to skin, I hear.