“Curiosity Killed the Cat” – Phrase Origin

We often hear the phrase, “Curiosity killed the cat,” and we don’t think anything of it. However, if we start thinking about it, we suddenly become buried with questions – Where did this phrase originate? And why a cat of all the animals?

The origin of the phrase “curiosity killed the cat” is difficult to trace since it goes hundreds of years back. However, the first recorded usage of this phrase can be found in Ben Johnson’s play Every Man in His Humour from the late 16th century. The original phrase was “care killed a cat.”

We all know the meaning of this phrase, but not that many know its origins and usage in the past. So, continue reading this article to learn about this phrase’s interesting history and how the meaning has changed over time.

The Interesting History of the Phrase “Curiosity Killed the Cat”

Whenever you find yourself trying to learn some secret information from, say, your friends, and they don’t want to reveal it, they’ll probably brush you off with a smug “Curiosity killed the cat.” That phrase (which is even a proverb nowadays) has been with us for so long that we don’t even think about how weird it is. 

It’s difficult to really pinpoint the exact date when the phrase was first used and in what context, but we have a written record of the original phrase dating back to the 1590s. Yes – it’s been with us that long! Well, not in the form we know it today, though. 

Ben Johnson’s play Every Man in His Humour has a line in Act 1 that states, “care’ll kill a cat.” This is the most likely origin of the phrase we know today. Johnson wasn’t the only famous dramatist to use this phrase. William Shakespeare also used it in his Much Ado About Nothing, where the same version with the word “care” appears. 

What It Meant in Its Original Version: “Care Killed the Cat”

So, why did the original version of the phrase include the word “care” instead of “curiosity,” and can care really kill anyone? There are just too many questions. First, we need to erase the meaning of the word “care” that we know today from our brains because it didn’t mean the same thing in the past.

Since we’re discussing the 1590s (when Johnson’s play was performed), we need to see what “care” meant then. Around the 1580s (close enough), the word was related to being concerned. So, we might just as well say, “Concern killed the cat” to make it easier for us. When stated like this, it makes more sense, right? 

But wait – can cats die when they’re concerned about something? Well, technically speaking, cats can experience depression, anxiety, and stress, which we can count as “concern.” To answer the question then – while cats can’t die directly from either of these three, the symptoms that follow those mental conditions can absolutely kill a cat. 

Why the Cat?

Aren’t humans also curious? Why was a cat seen as a perfect model for the phrase, “Curiosity killed the cat”? 

First of all, I’m sure we’ve all seen cats. Even if you don’t have a cat as a pet, you know that cats have basically two moods: they’re either lying down and sleeping all the time, or they’re super energetic and run all over the place – there’s no in-between. 

In that sense, cats can be pretty curious creatures, just like many other animals (and humans). However, the main difference between cats and other animals (or humans) is that they will stop at nothing to explore whatever they’re curious about. Fortunately, cats are nimble and pretty good with climbing stuff, so they most usually survive their dangerous adventures. 

Those who have cats for pets know that it only takes a laser beam for cats to go crazy. They’ll climb walls, furniture, and doors; they’ll reach the unreachable parts of your kitchen or bedroom, and they’ll destroy everything in the process. 

Some of you might (rightfully) start shouting at your screens right now: Wait, what about the original phrase – “Care killed the cat”? That’s obviously connected more with cats’ mental and emotional state rather than their energy to chase something.

For this answer, we again need to go back to the 16th century. Cats weren’t the most popular animals in the west for much of their history. They were seen simply as good “mouse deterrents” in people’s homes. More importantly, however, cats were seen (and often depicted in the art) as animals that get angry easily

So, what are the symbolic interpretations of all these versions, then? 

From “Care” to “Curiosity”

Now that we have pretty good knowledge about the origin of the phrase, some variations, and (most importantly) the history of cats, it’s time we discuss why all that matters on a symbolic level. I mean, what does it metaphorically mean when we say, “Curiosity killed the cat” today? But first, we need to start from the beginning – “Care killed the cat.”

As we saw, “concern,” which is to say stress, can harm cats emotionally and physically, and some symptoms can lead to death. So to say that “Care killed the cat” doesn’t mean any old nonsense. It bears some truth. Add to that the fact that cats are naturally really cautious and scared easily, and you can understand the symbolic level of this phrase.

Apart from that, I also mentioned how cats were seen as easily angered animals – and honestly, that’s true today as much as it was in the 16th century. There’s still some symbolic relevance in this respect, also. If cats get angry so easily, they often get into trouble, be it with other cats, animals, or humans. 

So, somewhere along the way, this version of the phrase got replaced with “Curiosity killed the cat.” The switch happened probably sometime in the 19th century when the word “care” started to get the meaning that’s more familiar to us today. So, saying “Care killed the cat” literally and symbolically no longer made sense

Instead, “curiosity” replaced “care” because pretty much everybody could understand the phrase’s implication. It was certainly true, literally speaking, that cats were naturally curious, and symbolically it made sense to say that an “unhealthy” dose of interest in some information can do more harm than good.  

What About the Rest of the Phrase: “Satisfaction Brought It Back”?

Yes, there’s been another “upgrade” to the existing phrase, and I’m sure many of you either heard it or even used it as a nice comeback to those who used this phrase on you. The full phrase then became: “Curiosity killed the cat – satisfaction brought it back.” So, let’s explore this version briefly as well.

First of all, there are so many people who say that the original phrase is the whole sentence, including the “satisfaction” part, and I’m here to tell you that’s not true. As you can see from our discussion above, the original phrase never included the second part (plus, the original word was “care”). So, the question then is: what’s the true origin of the “Satisfaction brought it back” part?

The additional part of the 19th-century phrase (with the word “curiosity”) was added in 1912 in a newspaper. This shows us that it was a fairly recent upgrade to the existing phrase. 

I’m sure there was somebody who was tired of constantly hearing “Curiosity killed the cat,” so they invented an additional part to spin the meaning in a more positive light. Who could blame them? After all, curiosity isn’t all that bad. 

So, what’s this new positive meaning that we got with the introduction of the “satisfaction” part? Well, it implies that being curious is completely fine, and even if you learn some unfortunate news or rumor, at least you’ll be satisfied you didn’t miss anything important.

Final Thoughts

Next time you hear somebody say to you, “Curiosity killed the cat,” you’ll know that the original phrase was actually “Care killed a cat,” where “care” meant “concern.” From the 16th century through the 19th, the phrase developed into the one we know today.