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What is "Herding Kittens"?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Cat owners may instantly recognize the oxymoronic element of the phrase herding kittens, sometimes rendered as herding cats. Cats and kittens are notoriously difficult to wrangle or control, so the idea of herding kittens would naturally sound like an exercise in futility. The concept of bringing order out of chaos or organizing the unorganizable has been compared to the questionable task of herding kittens or cats.

There is a surprising amount of disagreement among etymologists over the origin of the phrase "like herding kittens." Some sources believe the phrase originated in the IT community, where it would be considered difficult to organize a meeting of individual programmers and other independent thinkers. Allegedly, a very senior member of the community who was charged with organizing such a meeting of the minds compared the experience to herding kittens and the phrase became popular among managers and supervisors.

Others claim that the phrase came out of a 1981 MENSA meeting, where some participants wore homemade t-shirts bearing the caption "Organizing MENSA members is like herding kittens (or cats) — just use the right food.", or at least something to that effect. The concept of something difficult or chaotic being similar to herding kittens soon became a popular analogy among those in the know. Other organizations, however, claim that they invented the basic idea of "Organizing (name of group) is like herding kittens" long before the 1981 MENSA meeting.

The phrase has now become shorthand in the business world for taking on a project fraught with chaos and futility. A project manager charged with setting up a meeting of executives from all around the world may very easily compare it to herding kittens. The analogy is especially appropriate when the participants in an organized event are notoriously iconoclastic or resistant to "groupthink." Much like trying to herd kittens in real life, keeping a group of independent thinkers together as a cohesive group or managing several different projects at the same time would be considered by many as an exercise in futility.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By Soulfox — On Jan 13, 2015

@Logicfest -- There is one way to get cats to all show up in the same spot. If your cats are fed wet food and it is opened with an electric can opener, just turn that on and you will get them all in one spot.

But, yeah, you are right. Getting those things to move together as a group is about as easy as dumping a jar of marbles on the ground and trying to find them all before they roll away.

By Logicfest — On Jan 12, 2015

I had no idea that there was so much dispute over where the phrase "herding kittens" or "herding cats" originated. That one has been around for a long time and is an incredibly accurate phrase to use on so many occasions.

Any one who owns cats and dogs knows how rough it can be to get cats to move together or follow any discipline at all. Managing dogs is easy by comparison. Get one's attention and the rest will follow. Cats are not pack animals by nature and, as such, are next to impossible to train, herd or do anything else that requires them to move together as a unit or pay attention to authority.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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