Let The Cat Out Of The Bag – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Has someone ever told you something in confidence that you later revealed in public? Perhaps you shared some news with someone and they later shared the information with others. If so, then you are already aware of what letting the cat out of bag means.

While it is similar to snitching, letting the cat out of the bag is a milder term that usually refers to information unintentionally divulged.

This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.

Meaning

To let the cat out of the bag means to expose a secret that was previously under wraps. This could be done by mistake or carelessly, or it could also be intentional. 

Letting the cat out of the bag could also be used in a scheme or conspiracy where a piece of information is exposed and could be harmful or not to the purposed target.

In movie trailers for example, the cat can be let out of the bag when a plot twist is revealed. The phrase could also mean letting a non-member into a group by explaining the inner knowledge already known to its members. More information can be found in the video (here).

Example Usage

“Jane let the cat out of the bag when she talked about the surprise party in front of Jim”

“I didn’t want anyone to know about my pregnancy yet, you let the cat out of the bag”

Origin

The actually origin of the phrase is a bit murky, in fact, it seems to have originated in several locations all around the same time. One story states that the phrase came about on Royal Navy vessels. Specifically that there was an instrument of punishment being that was used on the sailors known as ‘cat o’nine tails. The whip-like instrument was reportedly kept in a red sack and any sailor who disclosed the offenses of another would be letting the cat out of the bag as it would be used the punish the defaulting sailor.

As early as 1760, there were reports of the phrase being used when an author was upset that a reviewer in the London Magazine revealed a plot twist. If you go a bit further back, the term was used to describe a medieval butchers scam of putting cats in the bag of unsuspecting customers buying meat.

Phrases Similar to Let The Cat Out Of The Bag

  • Give away.
  • Spill your guts.
  • Come out with.
  • Spill the beans.
  • Give the game away.
  • Spill the tea
  • Let on.
  • Blow the cover
  • No longer under wraps
  • Tell tales,
  • Bring to light.
  • Blow the lid off.
  • Blurt out.
  • Pull the plug on
  • Let on about
  • Blow the whistle
  • Put the word out

Phrases Opposite to Let The Cat Out Of The Bag

  • Keep under wraps
  • Keep quiet
  • Sweep under the carpet
  • Keep under one’s hat
  • Keep secret
  • Keep the lid on
  • Draw a veil over
  • Sweep under the rug
  • Keep dark
  • Do not tell a soul
  • Button your lips
  • Be the soul of discretion
  • Keep under lock and key

What is The Correct Saying?

  • Let the cat out of the bag

Ways People May Incorrectly Say Let The Cat Out Of The Bag

‘Let the cat out of the bag’ is widely known but some people may still make a mistake and use ‘car’ or ‘cow’ or a similar sounding noun to replace ‘cat’. Some may also use the phrase as the wrong idiom in situations where another would have been appropriate. Idioms have been known to be used in formal speech and workplaces therefore ‘let the cat of the bag’ is an acceptable phrase both casual and formal settings alike.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Let The Cat Out Of The Bag

  • When you told him my plan, you let the cat out of the bag.
  • That guy let the cat out of the bag when he told us the ending of the movie.
  • Why did you let the cat out of the bag about the final episode?

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