Sunday, March 18, 2012

What Is a Cat's-Paw?

The first thing I wanted to look up when I saw that Dragon was doing a play called Cat's-Paw was the title - it felt like it might be a fable by Aesop. Turns out I was close. The story of The Monkey and the Cat was written by Jean de la Fontaine and published in a collection of fables in 1679 but a version of it did also appear in Aesop's collections in the 17th century. The story by de la Fontaine reads something like this in English:

Bertrand was a monkey and Ratter was a cat. They shared the same dwelling and had the same master, and a pretty mischievous pair they were. It was impossible to intimidate them. If anything was missed or spoilt, no one thought of blaming the other people in the house. Bertrand stole all he could lay his hands upon, and as for Ratter, he gave more attention to cheese than he did to the mice.

One day, in the chimney corner, these two rascals sat watching some chestnuts that were roasting before the fire. How jolly it would be to steal them they thought: doubly desirable, for it would not only be joy to themselves, but an annoyance to others.

"Brother," said Bertrand to Ratter, "this day you shall achieve your master-stroke: you shall snatch some chestnuts out of the fire for me. Providence has not fitted me for that sort of game. If it had, I assure you chestnuts would have a fine time."

No sooner said than done. Ratter delicately stirred the cinders with his paw, stretched out his claws two or three times to prepare for the stroke, and then adroitly whipped out first one, then two, then three of the chestnuts, whilst Bertrand crunched them up between his teeth. In came a servant, and there was an end of the business. Farewell, ye rogues!

I am told that Ratter was by no means satisfied with the affair.

And princes are equally dissatisfied when, flattered to be employed in any uncomfortable concern, they burn their fingers in a distant province for the profit of some king.

So, basically, to be a cat's paw is to be someone's dupe - the cat did all the work and even burned his paws in the process while the monkey ate the fruits of the cat's efforts. Interestingly enough, the term has popped up recently in legal rulings because it was cited in a Supreme Court ruling on an employment discrimination case. Since then it's become a common term in legal circles.

[Image: Cat's Paw by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer]

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