Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Invasion of the Cat Persons

Posted by Neal on September 10, 2004

Our psychology consultant for Adam’s therapy program is not a cat person. So, as cats are known to do, our cats like to give her some extra special attention when she comes over. One of them in particular, Nick, always jumps up on her lap when he gets a chance, and it takes her by surprise every time. Then one of us comes and removes Nick from her lap, and she continues talking about Adam’s programs or what to do about any undesirable behaviors he’s been engaging in.

The last time she was here, though, our consultant took an admirable and courageous step: When Nick jumped on her lap and I came to take him away, she said, “No, I’ve got to get used to cats with this job,” and allowed Nick to stay on her lap. Pretty soon, though, she had a question: “Do cats, um, extend their claws when they’re sitting on you?”

I reassured her that Nick was just stretching and getting comfortable. One or two of the claws might prick a little, and if that happened she could just pick up his paw and put it down again. But as I reported to my wife later, “I hadn’t given it much thought, but I can see that making someone nervous. If I weren’t a cat person, and a cat sat on my lap and started to bust out its claws, I’d probably freak out.”

She said, “I’m glad you admit you’re a cat person!”

Whoa, now! Maybe I should have phrased the thought more carefully. What I meant to say was … I guess, “If I were a cat hater…”

But that’s neither here nor there. What occurred to me as I was trying to make my wife understand that I was not a cat person per se is that I didn’t know the plural of cat person. Was it cat people? Maybe, but that sounded an awful lot like something you’d find on the island of Dr. Moreau, as the makers of these movies realized. My wife thought so, too, and said she’d probably call all her cat-loving friends cat persons. On Google, the singular cat person gets 24.2K hits, but the plural cat persons gets only about 420. Cat people, meanwhile, gets 108K hits, an undetermined (but apparently pretty large) proportion of them referring to the “Cat People” movies, and some referring to people who like cats.

But does resorting to cat persons avoid the problem? Couldn’t cat persons be half-human, half-cat creatures just like cat people? And for that matter, even if the singular of cat person is cat persons, how do you refer to one catlike humanoid creature? If you’re watching one of the “Cat People” movies, and there’s a scene where one of the creatures is sneaking up on someone, what advice should you yell out? “Look out! There’s a cat person behind you!” Heh, heh. All I can picture when I hear that is a fiendish cat lover who will force you to pet her kitties, make you sit down and watch while she waves a feather on a string for them, and keep asking you, “Aren’t they the cutest things? Well, aren’t they? Answer me!!”

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6 Responses to “Invasion of the Cat Persons”

  1. I had a similar problem just the other day. I figured that spending a summer alone in an apartment with two cats while still only 19 means that I’d grow up to be a cat woman. (I generally prefer to use “woman” over “lady” to designate “adult female human.”) Until I realized that implies that I expect to acquire superpowers sometime between now and then. So, I suppose that makes me a future “cat lady,” which (for me at least) doesn’t have feline-hybrid implications. On the other hand, I can see “cat( )man” being a good word for such a creature, along the same lines as getting “veggieburger” from “hamburger.”

  2. Blar said

    Such terms are hopelessly ambiguous. When you say Batboy, for instance, could mean a strange bat-human hybrid that lives on the pages of certain kinds of “newspapers”, or you could be referring to a child who works at baseball games. Batgirl and Batman have additional sorts of meanings. Often, you can use a term like this and have it be understood and not seem strange, but the term is still available for exportation into situations where it will have a very different meaning.

    All of this reminds of me of something that Jack once said:
    “Sometimes you have to be careful when selecting a new name for yourself. For instance, let’s say you have chosen the nickname “Fly Head.” Normally you would think that “fly Head” would mean a person who has beautiful swept-back features, as if flying through the air. But think again. Couldn’t it also mean “having a head like a fly”? I’m afraid some people might actually think that.” -Jack Handey

  3. Neal said

    Blar’s right; compound words are often ambiguous simply because their meanings are only partially determined by their parts. We can tell that ‘batboy’ must mean some kind of boy, one that has something to do with bats (whether the animals or the objects), but beyond that, the meaning is up for grabs. And then once a more specific meaning is established, for example ‘[___]-man’ or ‘[___]-woman’ = “man or woman with superpowers” as in Quinn’s example, then often other words have to be found to express a different meaning that *could* have been expressed by the compound if it had just gotten there first. Actually, I think that’s why the word ‘cat-persons’ exists in the first place: ‘cat-people’ already had another meaning. But don’t quote me on that, since I haven’t actually traced the words’ histories. Pamela Downing has an interesting and much-cited article in the 1973 volume of Language on compound nouns in English.

    Thanks for the Jack Handey bit. That reminds me of another ambiguity in a compound word that I’ll have to blog about soon…

  4. Cat people…hmm…you mean like this? :)

    It’s funny…I hadn’t really thought about this matter before. If I were to refer to multiple feline afficionados, I would probably just use some other plural, like “cat lovers” (though, from your previous entry, this could give some people the wrong idea)—or else I’d just use “cat people” either without much of a second thought, or with an amused chuckle as it reminds me of the movie. Perhaps we should take a page from the Political Correctness movement and go with “persons of felinity”. :)

    By the way, if you’ve never seen Cat People, you might want to. The very first movie, anyway—NOT the remake. The first movie is a wonderful early psychological horror thriller where you’re never quite sure what to believe; in fact it pioneered some of the cinematic techniques that subsequently fell into common use in the horror genre.

  5. Anonymous said

    Our role-playing group always called those beguiling fictional people who looked like humanoid cats “felinoids.” People who love cats are “cat people” in the writing and speech of every cat-lover I’ve encountered.

    speedwell

  6. Anonymous said

    Speaking of Batman, Batboy, Batgirl, etc., I heard of a “bat-” superhero who happened to be a bat. So his name was Batbat or Bat-Bat.

    On Batman, the animated series was an actual bat-man (typical secret genetic lab escapee). He was called the Manbat.

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