Letting Secrets Slip: The Tale of “Letting the Cat Out of the Bag”

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In a quaint little village, a curious farmer attends a bustling market day, seeking to purchase a pig. A sly merchant presents a bag, ostensibly carrying a plump piglet. The eager yet cautious farmer opens the bag, only to find a disgruntled cat leaping out! The merchant’s scam is revealed in broad daylight, quite literally letting the cat out of the bag. This anecdote captures the essence of our idiomatic expression I’ll discuss in this article, “let the cat out of the bag.”

Etymology and Origins: “Let the Cat Out of the Bag”

“Let the cat out of the bag” is an idiomatic expression with an intriguing history, rich in color and steeped in the peculiarities of market trading practices from centuries past. The phrase originates from the 18th-century markets in Great Britain, where unscrupulous traders would replace valuable piglets with cats, selling them in bags to unsuspecting customers. The scam would only be discovered when the buyer lets the cat out of the bag.

To provide more context on the expression, livestock markets were common across rural and urban Great Britain during these times. They were lively, bustling places where all manner of goods changed hands, from produce to livestock. But they were also rife with trickery and deceit. The scam of selling a cat instead of a piglet, concealed in a sack or bag, was one such trick.

When a cautious buyer decided to check their purchase on the spot, the metaphorical ‘cat would be let out of the bag.’ The phrase then entered the common parlance, referring to the exposure of a deceit or secret.

Another theory of origin references the “cat o’ nine tails,” a whip used for punishment in the British Royal Navy. This cat was often stored in a bag, and letting it out would signify that someone was about to be punished, usually revealing a transgression. While this theory has traction, the pig-and-cat market scam version remains the more widely accepted.

Keep in mind that, like many idioms, the exact origin and first usage are hard to pinpoint, and different theories may exist. Despite the various theories, this colorful explanation tied to the marketplace deception is one of the most widely accepted.

Modern Meaning

In today’s parlance, ” letting the cat out of the bag” means revealing a secret or disclosing a hidden truth, typically unintentionally or by mistake. It brings to life the imagery of an unexpected revelation, much like the farmer’s surprise upon finding a cat instead of a piglet.

For instance, in a conversation, it might look something like this:

Steve: “Did you hear about Mary’s surprise birthday party next week?”

Bill: “Wait, Mary doesn’t know about the party, right? Steve, you just let the cat out of the bag!”

Variations and Related Phrases

While “let the cat out of the bag” is a commonly used idiom to indicate a revealed secret, other expressions convey a similar sentiment:

“Spill the beans” – To disclose a secret, especially inadvertently or carelessly. 

“Blow the gaff” – A British English phrase with the same meaning of revealing a secret.

Applications in Business and Personal Contexts

“Let the cat out of the bag” is a versatile phrase that can be used in various situations, both in business and personal life. In a business context, it could refer to inadvertently revealing strategic plans or leaking confidential information:

“During the press conference, the CEO accidentally let the cat out of the bag about the upcoming merger.”

In personal settings, it can relate to spilling secrets about surprise parties, undisclosed plans, or hidden feelings:

“Jenny didn’t mean to, but she let the cat out of the bag about Mark’s plans to propose to Lisa.”


Through this exploration of “let the cat out of the bag,” we’ve seen how market scams of the past have influenced our language, giving us a vivid idiom to describe the act of revealing a secret. So, next time you’re privy to confidential information, remember the unsuspecting farmer and his ill-fated purchase. You wouldn’t want to find yourself accidentally letting your own metaphorical cat out of the bag. Until our next exploration into the world of idioms, happy chatting, and keep those secrets safe!

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