Analysis: "As Mean As Cat's Meat" and W. Somerset Maugham in OED

After talking about the "blue bag" in my last post on W. Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale, I think I better discuss another curious phrase before I forget about it.

As Mean As Cat's Meat - "The Voice of the Turtle"

In the short story "The Voice of the Turtle," first published in 1935 and later incorporated in The Mixture As Before, Maugham tells the story about a young rising writer, Peter Melrose, who goes to stay with the narrator for a few days in the Riviera until he finds a lodging. Since Melrose is writing his second book on a prima donna, the narrator introduces him to his neighbour, La Falterona, a famous diva, one of Maugham's brilliant women who knows her mind; beautiful, ruthless, and hard.

During the narrator's last engaging conversation with La Falterona, she says:
"Everyone knows that women are passionate and that men are as mean as cat's meat." (The Mixture as Before. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1940. 241)

Cat's meat refers to meat for cats, which is horseflesh. The story behind is quite interesting. According to historical accounts on the web [1], selling cat's meat was a trade in the nineteenth century, especially in London, and only declined before WWII, when horses as a mode of conveyance were replaced by machines.

The term referring to "The flesh of horses, etc., prepared and sold by street dealers as food for domestic cats. Also attrib., as in cat's-meat-man" (OED) is already present as early as sixteenth century.

Maugham himself has made reference to the use of horseflesh for cat's meat in an early novel, Mrs. Craddock (1902):
"Well, when you ask for something reasonable. I always try my best to do it–but really, after I've paid thirty-five pounds for a horse, I can't cut him up for cat's meat." Now then we come to our phrase "as mean as cat's meat." (London: Heinemann, 1902. 149.)

That's Edward's answer to Bertha.

As mean as cat's meat
"As mean as cat's meat" 

Why is cat's meat mean? I know this may be a completely irrelevant question when one comes to idiomatic phrases. It would appear that cats love horseflesh and it was rather a treat for them. I suppose it would be considered mean if the cat's meat were fed to people, or it simply refers to the fact that horseflesh is inferior to other meat.

Besides "The Voice of the Turtle," Maugham uses the phrase in Don Fernando (1935), this time also in terms of women's complaints about men:
'Brother,' he [Rios] said, 'women are like bird-lime; good at sticking and bad at letting go. When a man spends his money on them and gives them presents, they do the dirty on him. And if he gives them nothing they say he's as mean as cat's meat. If he lets them gad about as much as they like, they think he's a fool; and if he won't, they think he's a bore. If he's in love with them they can't bear the sight of him and if he isn't, they won't give him a moment's peace.' (Don Fernando. London: Heinemann, 1935. 159)

For curiosity, I have found the original Spanish text and it is interesting to compare it with Maugham's translation:
Rios. Hermano mío las mugeres son como la liga, buenas de pegar y malas de desasir, y vemos que si un hombre gasta con ellas su hacienda y las regala, le pagan de esta manera, y si no les da nada, dicen que es la misma miseria; pues si las dexa salir con su gusto, le tienen por necio, y si se le estorba por enfadoso, si las quiere le aborrecen, y si no las quiere le persiguen. (Rojas, Agustin de. El viage entretenido de Agustin de Roxas. Madrid: Don Benito Cano, 1793. 191)

Maugham picks the animated phrase "as mean as cat's meat" for "la misma miseria." I retain the old Spanish because it gives a different air, so typical of the Golden Age. It is easy enough to understand if you know Spanish. Not all versions on the Internet contain the full book, but this one does.

The phrase appears again in Theatre (1937), when Tom Fennell is having a life of his own in the high society, forgetting all about Julia Lambert, she consoles herself: "Julia’s comfort was that they were all as mean as cat’s meat" (Theatre. Toronto: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1937. 186).

Furthermore, Maugham is quoted as saying: "I thought Walpole [Hugh Walpole] was an awful creature: he was as mean as cat's meat, and I hated the way he advertised and pushed himself" (Brady, Thomas F. "The Eighty Years of Mr. Maugham." The New York Times Magazine 24 Jan. 1954. 12). The language sounds rather strong for Maugham, but the article, though without specifying any details, appears to be an interview.

I have located its usage by another writer, Dymphna Cusack (1902–1981), who writes in her book Say No to Death (London: Heinemann, 1951): "The matron's as mean as cat's meat, and she'll only just give you enough to keep you alive" (66). Perhaps though cats loved horseflesh, they were fed stringently.

I hope one day I will be able to give a more satisfying account.

W. Somerset Maugham in OED

In the last post on Cakes and Ale I was registering some entries of Maugham's works as examples in the Oxford English Dictionary, and after a quick search, Maugham has been cited in 308 entries. It may be of interest to list them:
abandon, n.3
account, n.
arse, n.
art, n.
atavistic, a.
barge, v.1
baroque, a. and n.
beach, n.
beat, v.1
belle, a. and n.
bel paese
bill, n.3
bit, n.2
blear-eyed, a.
blimey, int.
blind, a. (and adv.)
blind, v.
board, n.
boozed, ppl. a.
bounder, n.2
break, v.
breeze, v2
breezy, a.
brick, n.1
bunk, n.4
busted, ppl. a.
card, n.2
card, n.2
carroty, a.
carry, v.
cart, n.
check, int. and n.1
chichi, n.2 and a.
chip, n.1
chock, adv.
circumstance, n.
cold, n.
column, n.
come, v.
come, v.
come-hither, n.
cough, n.
counsel, n.
covert, n.
crack, n.
cramp, v.
crashing, ppl. a.
crazy, a.
creative, n.
creative, a.
cut, v.
date, n.2
day, n.
dead, a. (n.1, adv.)
deep, a.
dine, v.
direct, v.
dirty, a.
do, v.
doing, vbl. n.
down, n.3
drain, n.
dress, v.
drool, v.
drug, n.1
dunch, v.
du reste, advb. phr.
entrail, n.1
eye-wash, eyewash
face, n.
face, v.
fact, n.
fan, n.2
farfalle, n.
fat, a. and n.2
faux bonhomme
feather, n.
fed, pa. pple.
flat, a., adv., and n.3
fluff, n.1
footling, ppl. a.
frip, v.
gall, n.1
gawkily, adv.
giddy, a.
gin, n.2
God-awful, a.
good, a., adv., and n.
goose, n.
grass, n.1
gut, n.
hair, n.
heart, n.
hell-fire, hell fire
here, adv.
high, a. and n.2
hit, n.
hochgeboren, a. and n.
hope, v.
hopleless, a.
horse, n.
hot, a. (n.2)
humped, a.
hundred, n. and a.
ice, n.
indigent, a. (n.)
insist, v.
intelligence, n.
interior decoration
intriguing, ppl. a.
Irish, a. and n.
Jig-saw, n.
knock-up, n. and a.
know, v.
knuckle, n.
kris, creese, crease
laugh, n.
leisured, a.
lie, n.2
lion, n.
long, a.1
made, ppl. a.
maiden aunt
mais oui, int.
man, n.1
marine, a. and n.
mash, n.1
middle, a. and n.
milk, n.1
miss. n.4
mitigated, ppl. a.
moral, a.
mother, n.1
nagging, ppl. a.
nasty, a.
net, n.1
nip, v.1
noble, a. and n.1
oil, n.1
omelet, omelette, n.
on, prep.
opium, n.
other, a. pron. (n.)
packet, n.
pasquinade, n.
pass, n.2
pawpaw, papaw
peace, n.
pelter, v.
period, n.
perish, v.
perish, v.
petit, a. (n.)
piece, n.1 
pin, n.1
pink, n.4 and a.1
pipe, n.1
pit, n.1
plank, v.
point, n.1
ponce, n.
pop, n.1
potter, v.
pour, v.
powder, v.1
precinct, n.
proa, prahu
Propertian, a.
public, a. (n.)
pull, v.
pup, n.1
putty, n.
Quai d'Orsay
quarter, n.
rail, n.2
rattan, ratan, n.1
ravenously, adv.
raw, a. (n.2)
razor, n.
razzle, n.
reflect, v.
regulated, ppl. a.
religious, a. and n.
rice, n.2
rise, n.
Ritz, n. (a.)
rococo, a. and n.
room, n.1
rose, n.1 and a.1
running, vbl. n.
scène à faire
see, v.
sexual, a.
sharp, a. and n.1
sheep, n.
shingled, ppl. a.1
shout, n.2
show-off, n. (a.)
silent, a. and n.
silk, n. and a.
sky, n.1
slack, n.3
slap, n.1
slap-up, a.
sleep, v.
sleeping, vbl. n.
slip, v.1
smash, n.1
sneak, n.
sniffy, a.
snip, n.
snitch, v.
so-and-so, n., a., ...
Soho, n.2
spade, n.1
spider, n.
spirit, n.
stew, v.2
stick, v.1
stiff, a., n., and adv.
stream, n.
take, v.
talk, v.
thin, a. (n.) and adv.
thorn, n.
thousand,n. and a.
tick, v.1
tiddly, n. and a.1
traffic, n.
transient, a. (n.)
twopenny, a. and n.
velvet, n.
war, n.1
wart, n.
way, n.1
wheel, n.
yes, adv. (n.2)
yon, dem. adv.
zubrowka, n.

Updated: 14 July 2015

How to cite this:

The Mixture As Before at AbeBooks


[1] Linschoten. "The cat's meat man, a contemporary account." Web blog post. History Forums. Historum, 23 Jan. 2012. Web. 8 Apr. 2015. Hartwell, Sarah. "The Cat's Meat Man." Messybeast, 2014. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.


  1. Very interesting. Had never heard about the cat's meat man and all that once flourishing trade. I have somewhat mixed feelings about the whole thing, of course. As a cat lover, it's nice to know that cats in the old days apparently starved less than humans. As a horse lover, it's painful to contemplate the fate of horses in those times.

    The idiomatic phrase puzzles me, too. I'd understand if it were the cat's own meat that's referred to, but that would made the phrase redundant; it would never have established itself in this form: it would have become simply "as mean as a cat". But why cat's food should be mean is indeed quite a riddle.

    The historical articles are great fun. I love phrases like "itinerant cats" and "pussy's butcher". Priceless! The illustrations in the second article are delightful. I hadn't read so much on Victorian London since Michael Crichton inspired me to check the real facts between Victorian crime in general and "The Great Train Robbery" in particular.

    1. There you have it, torn between the two! Hard decision.

      I would tend to believe that it's quite a well-known phrase, but somehow couldn't trace more of its usage. I haven't been able to find a good corpus concordance. I'll certainly keep looking.

  2. The list of entries makes an interesting subject for browsing. Two words attracted my attention in particular this time: pornography and zakuska.

    The first I couldn't find. Am I right in thinking that "xii. 64" means "chapter xii, page 64"? The page number obviously doesn't apply to my edition (Vintage Classics), but I read the whole chapter (just two pages) and didn't find the sentence quoted in OED. Does the First edition contain it?

    Zakuska is an interesting example how words jump between languages and change their meanings in the process. So far as I know, the Russian original, almost always used in plural, means exactly what OED says it does. The same word in Bulgarian, and in singular, means "breakfast". The plural form (zakuski) is occasionally used collectively for cakes, sandwiches, etc. that can be had for breakfast (also in the afternoon), but nowadays that's a somewhat obsolete meaning, I think.

    1. I think you just identified an error in OED. It should be xiii. The page no. is correct for the first edition. They also forgot to list "The Gentleman in the Parlour" in the bibliography. Perhaps you should let them know so if they ever print another edition these can be corrected.

      Very interesting indeed about zakuska. I don't think I even noticed it when I read "On a Chinese Screen," but that was a long time ago. Just read the few passages in both books and the humour is a mood freshener. I remember being tremendously impressed by GP, perhaps it's time to read it again.

    2. Thank you for this information. Yes indeed, chapter xiii of my copy does contain the phrase. I should have thought of checking this myself, but I didn't. I have no intention of letting OED know of their mistake. They'll certainly take no notice. I'm a sensitive creature and don't like to be snubbed.

      I have in fact been considering re-reading Maugham's mature travel books for quite some time, but I have managed only Don Fernando so far. I guess these volumes, called "travel books" for the sake of convenience only, require a special mood for their proper appreciation.

      I love the phrase "mood freshener". Coined by you?

    3. Don't they also call them "travelogues"? I don't know if that would fit better.

      Yes, you like "mood freshener"? It just popped up in my mind after reading the passages. But then I googled it just now and it seems to be a term used already, for incense or body cream, so much for originality. :-(

  3. In my dictionary, one definition of mean is 'of poor quality'. I heard it used before in this way - meaning base or basic, crude. I suppose people weren't feeding their cat's filet mignon, therefore cat's meat is mean. Not mean like morally mean. [I just listened to Maugham reading "The Wash-Tub" on vinyl record, so I thought I'd check in.]

    1. Hi Mike,
      Nice to hear from you and thanks for the comment.

      Wonderful record.


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