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Catspaw:

Ever use a word thinking it's commonplace, only to learn from listeners' blank looks that it's obscure? Just happened to me in class Friday with "catspaw." It surprised me, though quick Nexis and Google searches confirm that it is indeed pretty uncommon; I found only about 15 references, setting aside proper names, in all Nexis-accessible 2006 newspaper articles. Google reports 200,000 references, about the same as for "dogsbody" (which I knew was obscure), but many of those seem to be to proper names, cat's paws, and cat's paw mussels. Don't know why I thought the word was relatively normal.

Allen Asch (mail) (www):
But, don't forget the 1967 Star Trek episode
11.5.2007 12:03pm
Frog Leg (mail):
News Flash: Member of academe does not share common social frame of reference with most of the public. In other news: rain is wet and drinking too much alcohol can make you inebriated.
11.5.2007 12:08pm
marghlar:
EV: could you give us an example of how you have been using "catspaw"? Most of the usages I am familiar with are nautical and very unlikely to come up in everyday conversation, or in legal writing. I am quite curious as to how it has come up.
11.5.2007 12:09pm
Guest101:
I'm surprised it's that uncommon, but are you also saying that "Catspaw" is a proper name? Where?
11.5.2007 12:16pm
Donald (mail):
Perhaps this is one of those situations in which usage has changed the proper usage of a word or phrase.

Try searching on "cat's paw" as well. "Catspaw" does, of course, mean "a person used to serve the purposes of another," and I assume that's the usage you're researching. But when I see it in case law (usually to name a theory of liability for employment discrimination liability--typically used to describe a situation where the person technically responsible for a hiring/firing decision is a mere rubber stamp for another individual's recommendation), it's typically as "cat's paw."
11.5.2007 12:17pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
I definitely think it's the Star Trek episode. Halloween, first episode produced (seventh aired) in the second season.

As for the meaning, the OED has the following (in addition to nautical and tools):

1. The paw of a cat; fig. that which comes down like the paw of a cat upon its victim.

1821 KEATS Isabel xvii, These Florentines..In hungry pride and gainful cowardice..Quick cat's-paws on the generous stray-away.

2. A person used as a tool by another to accomplish a purpose; see the earlier CAT'S-FOOT.

[1657 M. HAWKE Killing is Murder, These he useth as the Monkey did the Cat's paw to scrape the nuts out of the fire.] 1785 GROSE Dict. Vulgar T., Tool, cat's paw. 1817 in Churchyard's Chippes 165 note, Bothwell was merely the cat's-paw of Murray, Morton, and Maitland. 1837 RICHARDSON s.v. Cat, Cat's-paw, common in vulgar speech, but not in writing. 1877 MRS. FORRESTER Mignon I. 105, I am not going to be made a cat's paw of. 1883 American VI. 245 Making themselves mere catspaws to secure chestnuts for those publishers.
11.5.2007 12:17pm
gattsuru (mail) (www):
It can also describe a type of knot, and a type of plant, although both of those are fairly obscure. The most typical use is that of "a dupe or pawn", using the old fable about one animal conning a cat into pulling food out of a fire. The first animal feasts while the second gets burnt digits.

All uses are fairly obscure, though; I know it because I do enough writing, not because of academy.
11.5.2007 12:18pm
kevin r:
Glad I'm not the only one to instantly think "Trek episode"...
11.5.2007 12:20pm
rarango (mail):
Interesting word association exercise. Me? I thought of a nautical knot
11.5.2007 12:27pm
brucer:
I suspect that Aesop's Fables are no longer as widely read. The same fable that brought us "catspaw" also provided the idiom "don't expect me to pull your chestnuts out of the fire". Now excuse me while I go cry wolf elsewhere...
11.5.2007 12:29pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
I'm thinking it's a sci-fi thing: I first ran across cat's paw in written science fiction, before the TV series. Maybe it was Heinlein; a lot of words he used sent me to the dictionary.
11.5.2007 12:34pm
Ben P (mail):
Is it sad the first thing I thought of when I heard "Cat's Paw" was the employment discrimination legal doctrine?
11.5.2007 12:37pm
Gary McGath (www):
I wouldn't have considered it that unusual. But then, I'm also a Star Trek fan.
11.5.2007 12:41pm
Bruce:
If it wasn't for the Star Trek episode, I don't think I would know what it meant. I don't believe I've ever come across it in any other context.
11.5.2007 12:44pm
John Steele (mail):
It comes up (very occasionally) in legal ethics discussions when a lawyer uses a client or third person to do what is forbidden for the lawyer to do directly.
11.5.2007 12:46pm
Bruce:
P.S. Speaking of the ST/Halloween connection, the line from Spock near the beginning of the episode is priceless:

Captain Kirk [after hearing a chanted warning from an illusion of 3 MacBethian witches]: "Thoughts, Mr. Spock?"

Spock: "Very bad poetry, Captain."
11.5.2007 12:48pm
...Max... (mail):
Cat's paw mussels

Hmm... the only way I can think of to produce this typo is with a spellchecker. The code distance is just too great.
11.5.2007 1:02pm
...Max... (mail):
My bad. I'll remember to Google the strange looking typos first in the future.
11.5.2007 1:03pm
Jacob T. Levy (mail) (www):
I think of it as an ordinary word and would have expected it to be more common-- and, while I am a SF fan, Trek didn't immediately spring to mind.
11.5.2007 1:11pm
grackle (mail):
I think of it as an extremely ordinary word in building and construction. It is a tool used for pulling nails that has the shape of a cat's paw. Every carpenter has one. Search under tools on Amazon and a picture comes up.
11.5.2007 1:24pm
another anonymous reader:
I think it's in "Billy Budd."
11.5.2007 1:26pm
KevinM:
Whatever its ultimate roots, to me it sounds like Victorian argot - think Sherlock Holmes.
11.5.2007 1:34pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
I also had never heard the term in any context other than the Star Trek episode, and I had no idea it was an actual word. I'm a bit surprised Eugene knew the word and not the episode; he strikes me as someone who probably watched a lot of reruns of the original series when he was younger.
11.5.2007 1:37pm
Wallace:
A cat's paw is also a crow-bar like tool for pulling nails out of boards.
11.5.2007 1:53pm
Cornellian (mail):
Isn't there an SF novel titled "Catspaw?" I also thought there might have been a StarTrek episode by that name. Other than that, I've never seen the word used, either in conversation or in print. I didn't even realize it was an actual word.
11.5.2007 1:55pm
Malvolio:
The knot is a "monkey's paw". A cat's-paw is something used to distract a target from the main attack -- and yes, one of the great Star Trek episodes.
11.5.2007 1:57pm
R. G. Newbury (mail):
The usage that first comes to mind for me is nautical based but not obscure. The first hints of a new wind after a calm form "cat's paws on the water".
11.5.2007 2:09pm
Arkady:
'catspaws' used nautically refers to the small wavelets caused by a breeze upon the water. Kind of a ruffle of the water.
11.5.2007 2:10pm
Arkady:
And of course if you were teaching maritime law, you could
speak of the sea as being filled with white horses. :)
11.5.2007 2:17pm
mariner (mail):
And of course if you were teaching maritime law, you could speak of the sea as being filled with white horses. :)


Perhaps maritime weather, as the phenomenon Americans know as "whitecaps" is known in the Queen's English as "whitehorses".
11.5.2007 2:26pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Came in here to make the Star Trek point, happy to see that several others were quick to do so.
11.5.2007 2:27pm
uh_clem (mail):
The usage that first comes to mind for me is nautical based but not obscure. The first hints of a new wind after a calm form "cat's paws on the water".

That's my first image as well, but like you and unlike most of the others here I'm a recreational sailor.

(P.S. I remember you from rec.boats.racing, the usenet group for "sea lawyers")
11.5.2007 2:28pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
You also have a problem with the verb "buffalo".
11.5.2007 2:30pm
MJHamann:
"Catspaw" has been superseded by "sockpuppet" whose popularity is no doubt due to the graphic and amusing mental image it conjures up.
11.5.2007 2:33pm
DJR:
Observation on how google works: "catspaw" reports 205K hits; "cat's paw" reports less than 200K. Why? Because "catspaw" includes all the references to "cat's paw."

I wasn't previously aware of "dogsbody." What other phrases or words in the form of "animal's part-of-animal" that refer to something other than the obvious are there? Particularly those that have become single words? Horsesass clearly hasn't made it yet. Pigtail wouldn't count because it's missing the crucial apostrophe-s.
11.5.2007 2:34pm
SteveDK:
There have been other uses of the term in popular culture. For instance, there's the Harold Lloyd talkie The Cat's-Paw (1934), where he plays a patsy (hence the title) being pushed by a powerful machine to be mayor. It's worth a look by any lawyer or politician just to see his bizarre solution for fighting corruption. (There are actually several films with the same title made before the Lloyd picture--this suggests the term was better known in the first half of the 20th century.)

Then there was a 1959 Warner Bros. animated short entitled Cat's Paw starring, as you might expect, Sylvester the Cat.

And I seem to recall some time around the 80s a horror anthology film called Catspaw, or some variation, where all the stories were held together by a feline that roamed around the edge of the movie.
11.5.2007 2:39pm
DJR:
Another observation: the word cockswain, which I would guess is more common than dogsbody, if for no other reason than that I never heard of the latter before today, shows only 22,100 hits on google, which just goes to show that you can't really use the number of hits on google to prove anything.

I can also report that three seconds' searching does not reveal any connection between the word cockswain and a part of a rooster called a "wain," if there is such a part.
11.5.2007 2:39pm
Michael Masinter (mail):
"Cat's paw" is part of the everyday lexicon of employment discrimination law; see Lust v. Sealy, 383 F.3d 580, 584-585 (7th Cir. 2004) and EEOC v. BCI Coca Cola Bottling Co. of Los Angeles, 450 F.3d 476 (10th Cir. 2006), cert. granted, 127 S. Ct. 852 and cert. dismissed, 127 S. Ct. 1931 (2007).
11.5.2007 2:43pm
Another Commentor:

Bertrand and Raton-a Monkey and Cat
Were messmates in mischief, with roguery fat;
There was nothing they feared, there was nothing they spared
And whatever they plundered they usually shared.
If anything close by was stealable, they
Would never go foraging out of their way.
Bertrand stole everything Raton to please,
And Raton cared less for the mice than the cheese.

One day at the fire, when all clear was the coast,
The pair were both spying some chestnuts at roast:
To steal a good meal is its pleasure to double;
Besides, it would bring the cook's man into trouble.
Says Bertrand to Raton, "My brother, you see,
Fate's given a moment of glory to thee;
Get those chestnuts, and quickly, my brave one, I pray,
The gods have vouchsafed us a dinner to-day."

And so to snatch chestnuts poor Raton agreed,
And at once set to work on the dangerous deed.
With gingerly touch he the cinders withdrew,
And snatched the hot prizes, first one, and then two.
He has pilfered quite half, but has not eaten one;
The eating his comrade, Bertrand, has done.
A scullion comes-there's adieu to the theft-
And Raton is empty; and querulous left.

Your nobles are much in a similar case,
Who as flatterers dangerous service embrace;
And to gratify kings, fingers often will burn,
Then homeward, though wiser, still poorer return
11.5.2007 2:44pm
Dave N (mail):
I was going to make the Star Trek allusion, read that others had done so, realized that even coming here to do so made me a total geek...

Well, never mind.
11.5.2007 3:08pm
uh clem (mail):
What other phrases or words in the form of "animal's part-of-animal" that refer to something other than the obvious are there? Particularly those that have become single words? Horsesass clearly hasn't made it yet. Pigtail wouldn't count because it's missing the crucial apostrophe-s.

The one word restriction makes it tough. There are plenty of examples of cliche's or standard usages that are writtten as two words. For instance, nobody would blink at the phrase "bird's eye view", but the word birdseye conjures up images of TV dinners. Hawkeye is a character from M*A*S*H or an athlete from Iowa.

Some examples with and without the 's :
Bullseye
Beavertail
Duckbill
Lambswool
Pigskin
Sheepshank
Froglegs
Rattail
11.5.2007 3:27pm
Arkady:
By the way, what's a abnormal word?
11.5.2007 3:28pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
A swain is an old term for boyfriend. And a Cat's Paw print is the mark of a thrifty soul who got his shoes reheeled.
11.5.2007 3:44pm
Maureen001 (mail):
Although my first thought was of the Star Trek episode, I came across the word much earlier in my life. I am and always have been an avid reader. We used to have a much more extensive vocabulary than we do these days.
11.5.2007 3:45pm
Maureen001 (mail):
Note that the Star Trek episode was written by Robert Bloch.
11.5.2007 3:47pm
Anon Y. Mous:
SteveDK:
And I seem to recall some time around the 80s a horror anthology film called Catspaw, or some variation, where all the stories were held together by a feline that roamed around the edge of the movie.

You're probably thinking about Cat's Eye.
11.5.2007 4:07pm
rarango (mail):
Malvolio--thanks for the correction! its hell to get old and get things half right.
11.5.2007 4:21pm
Richard Gould-Saltman (mail):
I'm voting that "cockswain" is related to "swain", not "wain", based on its other Patrick-O'Brian-sea-faring relative, "boat-swain" ("bo'sun"), and the fact that the POB web-site reflects that the guy who maintains the list is referred to as the "listswain" ("liss'un')
11.5.2007 4:25pm
Yankev (mail):
The in-house lawyer for my client's vendor emailed me that the software warranty I was asking for was already in one particular schedule to a draft contract that consisted of attachment after attachment. Unfortunately, when I looked at the reference he gave me, it sent me to another schedule which cross-referenced another and so on, until I came to — an absolute disclaimer of warranties of any kind regarding their software. Even more unforunately, I wrongly assumed he was familiar with the phrase "not a mumbling word". He wasn't, and took offense, taking it as a criticism of the clarity of his drafting. He send me a very snitty email, refused to reply to my emails and my calls, and turned the negotiation over to a non-lawyer in his organization — who promptly gave me the warranty I wanted (and which his lawyer had been resisting on the excuse that it was already there) and we got the contract signed.

(It's a good thing I had stifled the urge to tell the lawyer that his supposed warranty was a game of three card monte.)
11.5.2007 4:26pm
noname (mail):
"Cockswain" doesn't show up much in google because the word is spelled "coxswain" (447,000 hits).
11.5.2007 4:29pm
Yankev (mail):
Uh, Clem, don't forget the sheepsfoot blade on a stockman's or electrician's pocket knife.
11.5.2007 4:30pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"Ever use a word thinking it's commonplace, only to learn from listeners' blank looks that it's obscure?"

Yes I've had that happen all too often, particularly for phrases. For example, I found many people don't know what "as the crow flies" means. How about "the best thing since sliced bread," and "The Pillars of Hercules. Let's not even talk about a clerk in the Sears hardware department not knowing what a "wrench" is, or a Bed Bath and Beyond clerk not knowing what a "funnel" is.
11.5.2007 4:42pm
Jeff Dege (mail):
"Uh, Clem, don't forget the sheepsfoot blade on a stockman's or electrician's pocket knife."

If you're talking "sheepsfoot", don't forget the sheepsfoot roller
11.5.2007 5:04pm
Richard Gould-Saltman (mail):
Sez Yankev:

"It's a good thing I had stifled the urge to tell the lawyer that his supposed warranty was a game of three card monte".

You might have also considered referencing "a game of cups and balls" (is there ANYONE ANYWHERE who hasn't seen THAT?) or even, depending on the gent's place of origin, "selling wolf-tickets".
11.5.2007 5:11pm
Yankev (mail):

"The Pillars of Hercules. Let's not even talk about a clerk in the Sears hardware department not knowing what a "wrench" is, or a Bed Bath and Beyond clerk not knowing what a "funnel" is.


Or a clerk in the boys' department of Macy's not knowing what French cuffs are.
11.5.2007 5:53pm
Yankev (mail):

or even, depending on the gent's place of origin, "selling wolf-tickets".

Don't know, but he was practicing in South Dakota. (Aren't they the state that has no bar exam and admits anyone with a JD from an accredited school, or was that North Dakota?)


You might have also considered referencing "a game of cups and balls"

I shudder -- he might have taken it as an off-color reference to anatomy and athletic protection.

Besides, in the version of the email I did NOT send him, I included a link to a NYC web site warning visitors about 3 card monte and explaining what it is. He was so personally offended at my suggestion that his company was not being straightforward about the lack of a warranty that a reference to 3 card monte would probably have sunk the deal.
11.5.2007 6:01pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
My ex had a cat named Learned Paw.
11.5.2007 6:04pm
Le Messurier (mail):
This post and thread about "cats paw" is now ranked 9th on Google! Can't we even have a private conversation?
11.5.2007 6:27pm
ys:

A swain is an old term for boyfriend

This is simply a Scandinavian word for "young guy" (svein). Where "cox" comes from appears to be more obscure.
11.5.2007 7:33pm
Richard Gould-Saltman (mail):
"Let's not even talk about a clerk in the Sears hardware department not knowing what a "wrench" is, or a Bed Bath and Beyond clerk not knowing what a "funnel" is.

Or a clerk in the boys' department of Macy's not knowing what French cuffs are."

OUCH!

Except I suspect they haven't had French cuffs in the boys' dept. at Macys for a while, or at least not nearly as many of them as Sears has wrenches. . . .
11.5.2007 8:17pm
Allen Asch (mail) (www):
Dave N wrote:

I was going to make the Star Trek allusion, read that others had done so, realized that even coming here to do so made me a total geek...
But, I was first with the Star Trek reference, making me king of the geeks for the day
11.5.2007 8:58pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):
Don't know why I thought the word was relatively normal.

Perhaps because you read books (real books) and your students don't.
11.5.2007 10:05pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
John Steele-

It comes up (very occasionally) in legal ethics discussions when a lawyer uses a client or third person to do what is forbidden for the lawyer to do directly.

Can you name some examples of what they use a "cat's paw" for? Using one to get around the rules and laws against "self-dealing" and "comingling" come to mind, but do you have examples of other ways one is used?

Also, I've been looking for websites or other sources that describe some of the frauds and confidence games people engage in, with or without attorney involvement. Do you have any links or recommendations?
11.5.2007 10:53pm
Hoosier:
Dogsbody is *obscure*?

Don't people watch Blackadder II ?!!!!
11.5.2007 11:11pm
Syd (mail):
I know catspaw from the Aesop fable but I've also seen it elsewhere. I once wrote a song with the title.

"Dogsbody" is a fantasy novel by Diana Wynne Jones. Don't have the word in my vocabulary.

Moleskin is a kind of cloth. It's also a skin-colored cloth used to cover genitals.

Two examples from the game of marbles are oxbloods and catseyes.
11.5.2007 11:38pm
Syd (mail):
And dogears, of course.
11.5.2007 11:40pm
Steve2:
I'm a fan of the baked-sweet bear's claws. They're sugary and delicious.
11.6.2007 12:51am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
I know a lot of words. Obscure words. I've read a lot of books (though Billy Budd, mentioned in this thread, I listened to on tape, because it's the name of a bar in New Rochelle, and I got confused because I thought the Four Top Salesmen were a doo-wop group). I've read a bunch of Aesop. I haven't read Cat's Cradle, but I've played it. Until today I'd never heard catspaw in that usage, or if I have I don't remember.

How about a clerk at a video store who didn't know what "Witness for the Prosecution" was, and reminding him "with Tyrone Power" only got "Who?"

(I heard that Blockbuster is going to downsize and concentrate more on new releases. Isn't that what they're already doing? And if they can make an entire movie in Aramaic, why isn't Beowulf being released in the original? [Then again, the same guy who made the Aramaic movie had to have his first movie dubbed from Australian into English.])
11.6.2007 1:14am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
PS I hadn't realized that it was those kind of nuts that were getting pulled from the fire.
11.6.2007 9:00am
cantemir:
IIRC, there's a minor character named something like Katzpaugh in The Great Gatsby. He turns up close to the beginning and is kind of a Jewish shyster lawyer stereotype, I'm afraid. At least, that was my impression as a youngster.
11.6.2007 11:25am
Siona Sthrunch (mail):
How about wolfsbane, of Harry Potter fame. An animal possessive-noun combination.

This was one of those few really great threads on this blog. It's a shame how rare they are and how, when they occur, they are lost in a week or so. I think this one should be a "sticky" thread, like some message boards implement, so we can follow up on it rather than reading the next diatribe about abortion or politics.
11.6.2007 11:27am
DeezRightWingNutz:
Like some of the other submissions, this one lacks an "s," but how about cameltoe*, which means,... uh,... mooseknuckles*.

*I'm not brave enough to Google on work computer to confirm that these are, indeed, compound words.
11.6.2007 11:39am
Fub:
DeezRightWingNutz:
*I'm not brave enough to Google on work computer to confirm that these are, indeed, compound words.
The dromedary appendage gets 1.96 MegaHits, while the Alces alces joint (as a compound word) gets only 33.1 KiloHits. There. That should be worksafe enough.

As is the case so often these days, WikiPedia covers (no pun intended) both.

Some more candidates for uh Clem's list above include:

fishtail, which may be most popularly known in its intransitive verb form, and

Hogeye, which is sometimes spelled with a hyphen, hog-eye.
11.6.2007 12:51pm
jimblacksongs (mail) (www):
Catpaw (alias) April Dumaka was briefly a member of the League of Super-Heroes. Her cat-like speed, agility and enhanced animal senses didn't cut it in the long run...but she had a cool uniform!
11.6.2007 12:52pm
jimblacksongs (mail) (www):
Sorry, misspelled her name - Catspaw...
11.6.2007 12:59pm
Tony Tutins (mail):

This is simply a Scandinavian word for "young guy" (svein). Where "cox" comes from appears to be more obscure.

My parochialism is showing: I've been a boyfriend but never a young scandinavian guy. A cock is a boat; ergo cockpit.
11.6.2007 1:21pm
Hoosier:
Cat's Foot, Iron Claw
Neurosurgeons scream for more
At Paranoia's Poison Door--
Twenty-First century Schizoid Man.
11.6.2007 6:22pm
CSorensen:
I thought nautical term at reading the term 'catspaw', as well. As for the sensation expressed, I got the same blank looks a few weeks ago on the subway. Someone near me sneezed, so I said 'gesundheit', and subsequently had to explain what it meant, why I said it and that I don't actually speak German...
11.6.2007 7:46pm
Norm:
I recently started a Marketing gig, after a career in the sciences. The Product Manager I was writing an ad for objected to my use of the idiom "shed some light" as being too obscure. (He's a native English speaker, no less.)

My friend suggested that he was concerned that activating the reader's brain, even for a trivial phrase, would cause them to think critically about the ad.
11.8.2007 12:01am