Bell the Cat - Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you facing a dangerous situation? Maybe you're at the beach, and someone warns you that there are plenty of sharks in the water around this spot. You could start a conversation involving tagging the sharks to help you understand where they are. It all sounds great, but who has the guts to get in the water and start tagging sharks.

"Bell the cat" is an idiomatic expression telling you that the idea sounds good, but it's not going to work out. This post unpacks the meaning, origin, and use of the phrase in conversation.

Bell the Cat Idiom Meaning

The meaning of "bell the cat" implies doing a dangerous job. The person who says the phrase would describe something that looks good on paper but is impossible to execute.

Using the phrase cause pause for thought, giving the people or person involved with the situation the suggestion that they should think about the methods used to achieve the goal and the probability of a successful outcome.

Bell the Cat Example Usage

"Who's going to bell the cat and tell the boss that the auditors are coming next week?"

"I just had a car crash. Now I have to bell the cat and call my parents to tell them what happened. I'm going to be in so much trouble."

"Who's going to bell the cat and tell dad they broke the living room window with the baseball?"

"The cops want me to be an informant on the gang, they want me to bell the cat, but I'm scared they'll kill me if they discover my informant status."

"It looks like that tornado is going to make landfall in a few hours. We better bell the cat and tell the neighbors to make sure they have the right preparations for the storm.?

Bell the Cat Idiom Origin

Bell the cat” features in one of Aesop's fables, under the title "The Belling Cat" or "The Mice in Council." The storyline involves a community of mice living on the walls of a house. The mice found a mortal enemy in the owner's cat, and they spent their days being terrified of the feline.

A cat is a stealthy stalker, making little to no sound as it approaches the mice. In the story, one of the mice suggests approaching the cat while it slept, placing a bell around its neck to warn the mice of the feline's approach.

The mice all agree that this strategy is the best option for helping them reduce the threat of the cat in their daily lives. However, none of the mice dare to nominate themselves as the mouse to put the bell on the cat.

Phrases Similar to Bell the Cat

  • Put yourself in harm's way.
  • Unleash the Kraken.

Phrases Opposite to Bell the Cat

  • Safe and sound.
  • No danger.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Bell the cat.
  • Bell the cats.

Ways People May Say Bell the Cat Incorrectly

Some people may use "bell the cat" incorrectly. The phrase has nothing to do with bells or cats. It's an expression of calling on danger or placing someone as "bait" in a dangerous scenario. You wouldn't use this phrase in situations that weren't serious or potentially life-threatening, or career-ending. The younger generations might not understand what you mean by using the idiom.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Bell the Cat

You can use "bell the cat" if you're talking to people in the Baby Boomer generation. Typically, younger people won't understand the meaning of the phrase. Bell the cat means to put someone in imminent danger, at their discretion. The phrase suits a range of uses, from life-or-death situations, to around the office.

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