The phrase “cat’s in the cradle” is a classic idiom: Taken together, its words mean something entirely different than they would on their own—literally, a cat inside a baby’s cradle. What’s more, you aren’t likely to be able to figure out that meaning through deduction; you simply must know the expression outright. If you’re unfamiliar with it, this article will share the definition of “cat’s in the cradle” so that you can use this popular idiomatic expression correctly when writing and speaking.
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If you hear someone today use the expression “cat’s in the cradle,” they’re likely describing a relationship in which one person doesn’t make enough time for the other, whether that’s a romantic relationship, friendship, or parental relationship. In fact, this turn of phrase is actually taken from song lyrics that describe a father whose busy schedule keeps him from spending quality time with his son. (Read much more about this song below.) For this reason, you may hear it used as a response to someone who has declined or canceled plans, likely for the millionth time. For example:
“Hey, Sarah, let’s have dinner together this weekend; what do you say?” “I’d love to, Jenny, but I’m just too busy with work.” “How about next weekend then?” “I already have plans.” “I guess the cat’s in the cradle. You can never make time for me these days.”
As is often the case, though, one turn of phrase can be used to mean many different things. It’s also possible that someone may use the expression “cat’s in the cradle” to describe a dangerous situation, although this usage is much less common.
The Origins of the Phrase Cat’s in the Cradle
The popular definition of the saying “cat’s in the cradle” comes from the phrase’s use in a song of the same title recorded and released by folk artist and songwriter Harry Chapin in 1974. Here is a portion of lyrics to the song, including the famous line “cat’s in the cradle.”
My child arrived just the other day He came to the world in the usual way But there were planes to catch and bills to pay He learned to walk while I was away And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew He’d say, “I’m gonna be like you, dad” “You know I’m gonna be like you”
And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon Little boy blue and the man on the moon “When you comin’ home dad?” “I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, son” “You know we’ll have a good time then”
Actually, although Chapin added his own words before recording the song, the lyrics were taken from a poem written by his wife, which, as the song does, expressed the importance of a close father and son relationship and the difficulty that can arise in building and creating that dynamic in a world where a father is often hard at work outside of the home. She’s said to have gotten the idea for the piece from the poor relationship her first husband had with his father, as well as from a country song she heard and liked that shared a similar sentiment. The lyrics have also been seen by some as a commentary, albeit a loving one, on her second husband’s life as a musician, which required he be constantly on the road away from his family.
When Chapin reworked the lyrics, he incorporated the references to children’s nursery rhymes, including those familiar to us like “Little Boy Blue” and “The Man in the Moon.” Although not well known by many, there is a Dutch fairy tale entitled “The Cat and the Cradle,” which is most likely where he got his famous line and song title from. In a version of that tale, a cat saves a young child from a flood by traveling with it through the floodwaters in its cradle and ultimately finding help.
The extreme popularity of Chapin’s song likely propelled the phrase into the lexicon, and these days the song’s overall message can be summed up in the simple phrase “cat’s in the cradle.”
Although the image of a cat in a cradle is positive in the Dutch fairy tale and even in Chapin’s song, in that it conjures up images of a child put to sleep by being read a nursery rhyme, that’s not the case in the other possible definition of the phrase. The use of “cat’s in the cradle” to describe something dangerous appears to come from an old wives’ tale that, if allowed into its crib, a cat would kill an infant by sucking out its breath. That certainly sounds far-fetched today, but it was a commonly held superstition back in the 1600s and 1700s.
A Related Expression: Cat’s Cradle
You may have also heard the saying “cat’s cradle.” Although it sounds very similar to “cat’s in the cradle,” it has a different meaning and a different origin. This idiom is used to describe something that is extremely complex, difficult, or jumbled—or even messy. That’s because this phrase is derived from a classic children’s game called, you guessed it, Cat’s Cradle, in which two or more children pass a loop of string back and forth between their hands to create various figures. The weaving patterns are intricate and complex; thus, the phrase’s meaning. Interestingly, Cat’s Cradle is one of the oldest games ever recorded in our history.
For instance, you may hear the phrase used like this:
“Her bedroom looked like a cat’s cradle.”
“The problem was a bit of a cat’s cradle: complicated with several different possible solutions.”
As mentioned at the start of this article, “cat’s in the cradle”—as well as “cat’s cradle”—are idiomatic phrases. An idiom is an expression that’s meaning is unrelated to the individual words that comprise it. These words and phrases aren’t to be taken literally; they have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Even if you’ve never heard the term “idiom,” you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water. His boss gave him the ax. It’s time to face the music. You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
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