Mind your language

What do ‘catcalls’ have to do with cats?

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

‘A law against catcalls?’ asked my husband sceptically. ‘What next, criminalising booing and hissing?’

He often gets the wrong end of the stick, but in this case I hardly blame him, for the press retailed widely Liz Truss’s resolve to make a law against catcalls and wolf-whistles. But to an older generation like my husband’s, catcalling is something to do with the theatre.

In Practical Cats, T.S. Eliot assures us that Gus the Theatre Cat acted with Irving and Tree – Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905), who Shaw said revealed on stage ‘glimpses of a latent bestial dangerousness’, and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917), noted for histrionic versatility. But then Eliot mentions Gus’s ‘success on the Halls, / Where the Gallery once gave him seven cat-calls’. The play on words, which puzzled me as a child, is on curtain-calls.

Catcall was originally the name for the squeaking or whistling instrument on which the noise was made. In March 1660, Samuel Pepys bought one in Pope’s Head Alley, a place in the City selling cutlery and toys. It cost him two groats. We do not, I think, learn whether he employed it in the theatre. But in April 1712, in No. 361 of The Spectator (no relation), Joseph Addison tells of a country squire going to see The Humorous Lieutenant, by Beaumont and Fletcher. At curtain-up he ‘was very much surprized with the great Consort of Cat-calls which was exhibited that Evening’. He thought it odd to see ‘so many Persons of Quality of both Sexes assembled together at a kind of Catterwawling.’

It was not until the 1980s that the catcall escaped from the theatre to the street, made without mechanical help and directed at women. ‘Hey babe, you want to get lucky?’ the male Marines called to women recruits outside a barracks, wrote Randy Shilts, a gay journalist in San Francisco, who died of Aids in 1994.

I suspect the phrase was by then influenced by the American cat house, ‘brothel’, used from the 1930s. Catmeaning ‘prostitute’, current in Britain from 1400 to 1700, had became obsolete, the Oxford English Dictionary says. Under Liz Truss as prime minister, we shall be driven back into the theatre or perhaps parliament to make cat calls.

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