This blog post is cat melodeon

A distinctive feature of the English spoken in Ireland is the colloquial use of cat as an adjective to mean: awful, unpleasant, rough, terrible, bad, calamitous, or very disappointing. I heard it a lot as a child, and I still do occasionally in the city – someone wants to criticise a situation, such as a bad sporting performance or a job done ineptly, and they say “It’s cat” and that sums it up.

Adjectival cat shows up in writing as well; I came across it recently in Angela Bourke’s short story ‘Charm’, in her collection By Salt Water. The narrator, an eleven-year-old girl, is staying at her aunt’s and hanging out with Brian Molloy, a neighbour around her own age, and Bernie, his older cousin:

Bernie was at Molloys as well. She was their cousin and she had a job in the hospital for the summer. She was from another place up in the mountains, called Derrylynch, that Brian said was the arse-end of nowhere. He was always teasing her, saying things like that. Any time Bernie didn’t like something she said it was cat, and Brian used to go around after her asking her if the dog was cat. He said cat himself though, and if he was talking about something really bad, like his school, he said it was cat melodeon.

Bernie is later reported as saying, “it’s cat when they’re dying all over the place” (i.e., rats); and “it was cat, the things some of them expected” (i.e., men). Often it appears as cat altogether or cat melodeon (or melodium), these longer phrases emphasising the cat-ness of the situation. (Cf. the expression melodeonised  “left in an awful state”, suggesting the image of being crumpled like an accordion.)

Browsing the popular Irish web forum Boards.ie for examples, I found the following things described as “cat”: a head cold; processed food; Rocky V; poems; dark ales; bad weather; golfing ability; heavy traffic; rugby jersey design; video gameplay; an athletics result; a music performance; band members not coming to a gig; and the state of Main Street in Lanesboro. You get the idea.

The origin of this peculiar usage is uncertain: is it an abbreviation of catastrophe/catastrophic, or a derivation from Irish cat mara or cat marbh – literally “sea cat” and “dead cat”, respectively, but meaning “mischief” or “calamity”?

Bernard Share’s Slanguage quotes Victoria White in the Irish Times calling cat melodeon “the greatest expression in Hiberno-English”; her review of a book on Irish traditional music by Ciaran Carson reports his hypothesis that it comes from the aforementioned Irish phrases, and relates:

the tendency of the piano-accordion players (who often refer to their instruments as melodeons) to play two notes at once.

Two discordant notes, presumably, maybe evoking the yowling of a tom-cat on a hormonal night. But I don’t know if there’s anything to this origin story beyond speculation.

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16 Responses to This blog post is cat melodeon

  1. Angela Bourke´s excerpt is a good illustration to stay away from the verb ´to be´in nearly every sentence.

  2. cherrymac66 says:

    This is very interesting blog. I love the English language and do not pretend to know very much about it. The slang of different counties in Britain are so vast and interesting.

  3. Mrs Fever says:

    Is the term ‘catty’ ~ as most often used to describe women who are underhanded and vindictive with one another ~ related to ‘cat’?

    Or is it truly the snaggle-toothed fur-flying adjectival fighting derivation of the four footed variety of ‘cat’?

  4. Claire Stokes says:

    Fascinating!

  5. fromcouchtomoon says:

    “Cat” is officially my new favorite slang term. Let’s see if it catches fire in Texas.

  6. Leif says:

    In Downpatrick, I used to hear it more like ‘ket’. I thought it was a County Down phenomenon, whaddya know.

  7. wisewebwoman says:

    We used it all the time in Cork. Particularly to describe bad dates in one word. “Cat”. Enough said. Everyone knew what you meant. But Cat Melodeon. Perfect.
    XO
    WWW

  8. Stan says:

    betterthntherapy: I thought it read fine in the context of the story.

    cherry: Thank you. Slang interests me too; it’s often at the vaguard of language change.

    Mrs Fever: The latter. Catty derives from cat (appearing first in the late 19thC), but not the cat I write about here, which is probably unrelated to either.

    Claire: It is a curious usage.

    fromcouchtomoon: Excellent. But you might have to use it doggedly before it catches on.

    Leif: Thanks for reporting from Down, and for the note on pronunciation there. It seems to be in use all over the island, more or less.

    WWW: I can see how it would be useful in that context! Succinct and withering.

  9. iamreddave says:

    “In London, the plague was blamed on cats – long associated in Europe with evil. Huge bonfires consumed the cats, causing the rat population to grow.” http://suite101.com/a/the-black-death-in-14th-century-europe-a102950

    Could cat come from the superstition about cats? Pope Gregory is said to have declared them diabolical but I cant find any sign of the edict.

  10. As being a (German) cat I have to say booo! ;)

    However I do love English very much and I´m always keen to improve my knowledge. Thanks for this interesting post

  11. One image evoked by cat melodeon is that of using picking up a cat and using it as a melodeon: stretching it and compressing it and calling it music when it cries out in distress. In that case, when you say “This blog post is cat melodeon“, you are saying, “This is to a blog post what the sound made by a tortured cat is to music“.

    No cats were harmed in the writing of this comment.

  12. John O'Neill says:

    Esp when speaker is from Rural Mid-Ulster and it’s pronounced keee-yat

  13. Stan says:

    Dave: Was that superstition about cats prevalent in Ireland? I’m not sure about the timing either, but lacking a clear etymology I wouldn’t rule anything out.

    Janis: You’re welcome. If it’s any consolation, I don’t think people are thinking of cats when they use the expression.

    Adrian: Or in the posting of this image:

    Incidentally, cats playing accordions (some of them invisible) are not uncommon in Google Images.

    John: That’s true. I should have included a note about pronunciation. Also, melodeon in “cat melodeon” is always, as far as I know, pronounced “melojan”, and sometimes the spelling reflects this.

  14. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Curiously, the rather dated expression,”the cat’s meow”, likely in wider use in the pre-WWII era (Roaring Twenties ?) than today, meaning of exceptional quality, the ‘tops’, or exhibiting high distinction, has a positive air about it; whereas “cat melodeon”, or for that matter, any subject predicated by the “cat” adjective, clearly reflects a negative, downer connotation.

    Granted the “cat”, in the phrase “cat’s meow” is rooted in the feline, whilst as pointed out in the article, “cat” as a decidedly negatively tinged adjective has its origin in the notion of “catastrophe”.

    @Stan, thanks for the photo of that intriguingly marked, hefty pussy cat. The midriff vertical stripping really does mimic an accordion’s bellows. (I think this guy is part raccoon. Check out that handsome ringed tail.)

    @Adrian, I got a chuckle out of your little parting disclaimer about no animals being harmed in your post. Very clever. I was getting a little worried there, w/ your graphic description of cat-as-surrogate- accordion… squeals and all. The PETA folks must have been sharpening their rhetorical ‘knives’, until your saving caveat at the end. Ha!

    • Stan says:

      Alex: It is an funnily marked cat, and a healthy looking specimen too (if a little too well fed). I don’t think the Irish usage of cat (adj.) comes from catastrophe, by the way. It may, but it’s only one of several possibilities.

  15. […] his own blog, Stan examined the colloquial use in Ireland of the word cat to mean “awful, unpleasant, rough, terrible, bad, calamitous, or very […]

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