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What Does "Bell the Cat" Mean?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 23, 2024
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English sayings with non-literal, symbolic meanings are often called idioms. The meaning of idioms can often be traced to either true or fictional stories that contain some memorable phrase or symbol. The idiom "bell the cat" or "belling the cat" is one such example, as it references an instructional fable. On one level, the phrase is used when a hard task is successfully undertaken. In a broader sense, however, this idiom — like the fable that inspired it — cautions about acting before thinking, or properly considering all sides of a plan or opportunity.

The saying bell the cat likely derives from a fable created around the Middle Ages that is often titled “The Bell and the Cat." In the story, a cat menaces mice as the smaller creatures brainstorm ways to stop their foe. When a plan involving securing a bell on the cat’s neck to alert the feline's presence is proposed, the group is excited by the idea. None of the mice, however, are willing to be the one to execute the task.

Fables are fictional tales that are meant to teach a lesson or moral. In this fable, the lesson taught concerns setting realistic goals in the face of challenging obstacles. While the idea the mice calculated sounded good, the reality of its implementation proved too difficult.

In terms of meaning of idioms, to bell the cat means to perform a difficult task. Therefore, in a sense, this saying offers an idealized fulfillment of the fable’s lesson. If a difficult task is successfully performed, then the initial idea was likely well thought-out and executed with a realistic mindset concerning potential setbacks.

Historically, the saying bell the cat was often applied to political turmoil. A noble figure who successfully lead a rebellion, for example, was nicknamed belling-the-cat. Some scholars have also used the phrase as a point of comparison between democracy and other forms of political rule.

Bell the cat can be referenced for a number of more personal situations as well. A high career aspiration such as becoming a professional athlete or a renowned scientist could be viewed as belling the cat due to the difficulty of the objective and the numerous obstacles that may prevent its fulfillment. A task with a degree of danger or uncertainty involved — like scaling to a high mountain’s peak — could also fit this saying if the task is completed successfully. Even entering or remaining in a personal relationship with large personality differences, class differences, or other similar barriers could be viewed as a success story, or a belling of the cat.

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Discussion Comments
By irontoenail — On May 09, 2014

@KoiwiGal - It does depend on where you live, but I personally think most people should be made to keep their cats indoors. It's for the cat's safety, as well as local wildlife.

Cats are often introduced predators and the local animals haven't had time to develop defenses against them. They've certainly driven more than one species to extinction. And using a cat bell collar isn't going to guarantee anyone's safety, particularly not the cat. It might even make it more vulnerable to predators by alerting them to the cat's presence.

The best solution is to keep your cat inside from the beginning, so it doesn't know any other life. It might seem cruel, but it's the compromise we have to make in order to keep domesticated cats.

By KoiwiGal — On May 09, 2014

@clintflint - Some people keep their cats in order to take advantage of their hunting ability. This is probably why we domesticated them in the first place (or they domesticated us, depending on who you would believe). People might not like the idea of their cat killing little forest animals, but it's the way of nature for predators to do this. There's a reason mice are instinctively scared of cats, even in a fable.

By clintflint — On May 09, 2014

I know this is just supposed to be a fable, but it really is a very good idea to bell your cat. It's easy to get a bell from a pet store or a collar that comes with a cat bell already attached.

Outdoor cats each kill hundreds of small animals and birds every year. No matter how gentle or sweet you think your beloved cat is, they are also bloodthirsty killers and will hunt animals for fun, not for food. If they have a bell, then it at least gives the creatures a fighting chance.

Considering most wild animals are already under quite a lot of environmental pressure, this is the least people can do.

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