Stupid Question ™
May 17, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: How many ways are there to skin a cat?
A: Unfortunately, the great American slang phrase says only that there is “more than one way to skin a cat.”
Dating to the late 1800s, the phrase means that there is more than one method of accomplishing a given task.
I couldn’t find a single source that even speculated on the origin of this morbid phrase, beyond one that not very usefully claimed it was a variation on the supposed earlier British phrase “more ways of killing a cat.”
It could simply come from the Victorian trade in cat fur, which was used as trim on coats. Indeed, this industry is supposedly the origin of the intriguingly similar, though less popular, 1800s phrase, “What can you have of a cat but her skin?”, meaning a thing has only one purpose (supposedly because the skin was the only commercially valuable part of a cat). It is possible that “more than one way to skin a cat” was coined as an answer to this phrase (or vice versa).
However, I’m also intrigued by the phrase “to skin the cat.” Dating to around 1845, this phrase started as slang for a gymnastic exercise in which people hanging from horizontal bars passed their legs up and between their arms. The phrase soon expanded to mean any slick maneuver, either literal or metaphorical (e.g., “Ronald Reagan skinned the cat on the Iran-Contra scandal”). This meaning persisted as late as the 1940s and would seem to have some bearing on our phrase.
Indeed, “skin” had a wide variety of slang meanings in the 1800s, most suggesting trickiness or deception. In 1830s school slang, to “skin” meant to cheat or to plagiarize. From around 1860 to 1930, it meant to completely beat or outdo someone in a competition.
And in the late 1800s—the period that apparently also spawned our phrase—to “skin out” was to abscond or get away in the nick of time, and a “skin game” was a rigged gambling game.
Cat-fur trading? Gymnastics? Illicit gambling? There’s certainly more than one way to skin a cat on “more than one way to skin a cat.” But which is the right way?
Q: What does the medical acronym STAT, meaning to do something quickly, stand for?
A: Medical jargon that has been popularized by the TV show “ER,” “stat” actually doesn’t stand for anything.
It is in fact an abbreviation of the Latin adverb statim, meaning “immediately” or “at once.” It was originally used, beginning around 1875, on prescriptions, where it was properly written as “stat.” (with a period).
“Stat” has found unprecedented popularity in trauma centers, emergency rooms and television dramas—all of which have a great need for things to happen immediately.