cat that got the cream: in AmE? [+ cat that ate the canary]

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susanna76

Senior Member
Romanian
Hi there,

I'm reading the Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd ed. (2006). Found the phrases "like the cat that got the cream" (British and Australian) and "like the cat that ate the canary" (American)

Is the first one used only in BrE? It seems like such a good, easy and yet expressive, image, and yet I can't find it in the COCA corpus.

Thank you!
 
  • Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    I haven't heard it, nor do I find it particularly expressive of any particular image. "Got" is so flexible as to be practically meaningless. Many people give their cats cream as a treat so all of those cats have gotten cream from time to time.
     

    susanna76

    Senior Member
    Romanian
    Really? I didn't know that (that people gave their cats cream). Thank you, Myridon! What about the cat that ate the canary, is that one common? (Not that many households have canaries these days.)
     

    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    Yes, that is used. Regardless of the popularity of canaries (which I still see them in many pet stores), we know what it means to have a pet bird and that cats are not to be trusted near them. You look like the cat that ate the canary. You look like you have done something bad and are trying to hide it.
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    The Freedictionary.com entry covers both of these!
    like the cat that got the cream (British & Australian) also like the cat that ate the canary(American)

    if someone looks like the cat that got the cream, they annoy other people by looking very pleased with themselves because of something good that they have done Of course Mark got a glowing report so he was sitting there grinning like the cat that got the cream.
    Myridon's interpretation adds another dimension to the usage/interpretation of the phrase!

    People don't usually feed canaries to birds so that expression seems to fit with the cat doing something bad. Giving the cat a "treat" of cream might occur if the cat has done something good, so these expressions may actually mean opposite things. (After the expression was derived, it has been observed that milk/cream is actually a bad thing to give to cats, even if they like it - they are lactose-intolerant as adults). What a mess these expressions are!
     
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    Parla

    Member Emeritus
    English - US
    Since adult cats are essentially carnivores, like their cousins the lions and tigers, the "canary" expression makes more sense to me.
     

    Parla

    Member Emeritus
    English - US
    Which sense, though!?
    Annoying because of being too pleased with himself for doing something good, or trying to hide something bad?
    We don't know how we'd view whatever that person did; that cat just looks very, very happy.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    ... Many people give their cats cream as a treat so all of those cats have gotten cream from time to time...
    I've always assumed that the BrE version derives from the days when no-one would have dreamed of giving cream to a cat, so the only way a cat could have got the cream would have been by stealing it....
    We don't know how we'd view whatever that person did; that cat just looks very, very happy.
    Yes, to me it just means that the cat (= person) looks very pleased with himself:cool:.
     
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    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    I've always asssumed that the BrE version derives from the days when no-one would have dreamed of giving cream to a cat, so the only way a cat could have got the cream would have been by stealing it.
    :thumbsup: Me too. For me the clue is in the cream, i.e. 'the cream for human consumption that it wasn't supposed to get'. Back in the days when we used to get glass pint milk bottles, the cream would always (erm) float to the surface, i.e. to the top of the bottle: it was always known as the cream. (Not sure if that's relevant: it just came to me.)
     

    RM1(SS)

    Senior Member
    English - US (Midwest)
    :thumbsup: Me too. For me the clue is in the cream, i.e. 'the cream for human consumption that it wasn't supposed to get'. Back in the days when we used to get glass pint milk bottles, the cream would always (erm) float to the surface, i.e. to the top of the bottle: it was always known as the cream. (Not sure if that's relevant: it just came to me.)
    Nothing like going out to get the milk, and finding the bottle lying on its side with two cat-fang-sized puncture marks in the lid....
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    I've always assumed that the BrE version derives from the days when no-one would have dreamed of giving cream to a cat, so the only way a cat could have got the cream would have been by stealing it....Yes, to me it just means that the cat (= person) looks very pleased with himself:cool:.
    I'm still not clear on whether there is a consensus as to the reaction of the person uttering this comment: are they annoyed at the person with this grin (the Freedictionary suggests this) , do they feel the person should be prosecuted for stealing (or committing a forbidden/bad act, eating canaries, skimming the cream from the milk bottle :eek: etc), or is it simply the expression that is described without the speaker implying why the person is wearing of the grin??
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    For me, it's the last of your options, JS: You look very pleased with yourself (no implication as to whether what has caused the person to look pleased with himself is a good thing or a bad thing).
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    Thanks, Loob. The expression "You look like the cat that XYZ" is purely descriptive of the happy, satisfied person wearing the expression. Everything else beyond that, as they say here, is context, context, context ;D
     
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