The phrase likely originated sometime in the late 1500s in the works of Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare. “Curiosity killed the cat” is commonly used in colloquial conversations in all English-speaking communities and is usually regarded as fairly cliché and therefore not a great addition to a writer’s dialogue.
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Meaning of “Curiosity killed the cat”
“Curiosity killed the cat”, with the full version being “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back,” is a very common proverb. It suggests that being too curious or inquisitive is dangerous.
If one reaches too far into matters that don’t concern them, they may find themselves in danger. This could be a metaphorical danger or real, physical danger. For example, if someone takes several economic risks because they’re curious about what the state of the market is going to be, they may end up losing more money than they were willing to. In the same way, if someone pokes their nose into matters that don’t concern them, they may get in trouble or be punished in some way.
Origins of “Curiosity killed the cat”
“Curiosity killed the cat,” like most proverbs and idioms, has disputed beginnings. The first recorded use of the phrase was in 1598 in Ben Jonson’s play, Every Man in his Humour. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Jonson originated the phrase. When it was used in this play, the playwright wrote:
Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care will kill a cat, up-tails all, and a pox on the hangman.
Clearly, this is a different version of the phrase that we’re used to seeing today. It’s far more complex and is structured within the context of the play. But, the meaning is still there.
There’s a very similar saying in Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare that was performed in 1599. In this play, Shakespeare wrote:
What, courage man! what though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.
Here, the cat is part of a new phrase, one that still uses the word “care” rather than curiosity. But, again, the basics of the proverb are there. This is often how these phrases come into common use. They evolve over time, changing with the natural transitions in the English language. By 1898 there was a more definitive version of the proverb. It was published in Dictionary of Phrase and Fable by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer. It read:
Care killed the Cat.
It is said that “a cat has nine lives,” yet care would wear them all
Again, the word “care” is being used here. The modern variation of the phrase doesn’t have a clear origin either. There is an example from 1902 in which “curiosity” is used. It appears in Proverbs: Maxims and Phrases by John Hendricks Bechtel. By the early-mid-1900s, the phrase was well-established and used regularly.
At one point, a fuller version of the phrase was also being used. The second half of “curiosity killed the cat” is, “but satisfaction brings it back.” This suggests although curiosity led to the cat’s demise when its curiosity is satisfied, it’s returned to health. The risk is worth it, the rejoinder suggests.
When to Use the Proverb
It’s possible to use “curiosity killed the cat” in a wide variety of circumstances. One might use it when they’re trying to remind a friend or relative not to take so many risks or that what they’re trying to find out isn’t worth the risks they’re taking. It could also be used when someone is trying to reign in their own actions, ensuring that they don’t get themselves into trouble.
For example, one person might say, “I better stop. Curiosity killed the cat,” when they’re looking through a friend’s possessions, a partner’s journal, or trying to get into someone’s computer. They might realize they’re jeopardizing their relationship and pull themselves back. While they aren’t in physical danger, they are in danger of losing something that means something to them.
- Don’t do that, curiosity killed the cat, you know.
- How would you feel if someone did that to you? Curiosity killed the cat.
- My mother always reminded me that curiosity killed the cat.
- If curiosity killed the cat then why is looking through his computer so much fun?
- I have to remember that curiosity killed the cat or I might find myself in danger.
Why Do Writers Use “Curiosity killed the cat?”
Writers use “curiosity killed the cat” in the same way and for the same reasons that people use it in everyday conversations. It could be used in a dialogue between two characters who are arguing over what the right thing to do is. In another situation, a narrator might use it to foreshadow a negative consequence for another character in a short story or novel.
The phrase is so common that writers can use it without worrying that a reader will find themselves in the dark in regard to what it refers to. It’s almost universally recognized in the English language. But, while this is a pro in some ways, it also leads to the conclusion that the phrase is also quite cliché. Any original interest it might’ve had in the early 1900s has waned since then. Everyone knows what it is and what it means, no one is going to be creatively surprised by its use.
People use this phrase when they want to remind others or remind themselves that curiosity isn’t always a good thing. It can be dangerous, physically or metaphorically, depending on the actions one takes.
You can use it in most social situations, but it might be inappropriate to use in a business meeting or a serious academic setting. It is a colloquialism and could if used offhandedly, come across as immature or even insulting.
The proverb is usually related to “cats have nine lives,” and the animal’s interesting in seeing, smelling, and investigating everything. Cats are, in theory, so curious that they use up all their nine lives in their pursuit of new things.
The second half is “but satisfaction brings it back.” This suggests that the cat’s life was worth the risk to satisfy its curiosity. It also changes the entire meaning of the proverb.
- A bad workman blames his tools.
- A penny saved is a penny earned.
- Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
- It’s always darkest before the dawn.
- Slow and steady wins the race.
- You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.