Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Kitten Britches

Roy from Indian River asked about a phrase that he heard: “cat’s fur to make kitten britches.” I didn’t have the slightest idea about its origin or meaning, so I turned to the online bulletin board of the American Dialect Society. Garson O’Toole graciously put me on the right track.

The Random House Mavens’ Word of the Day blog ran an explanation in August of 1996. Basically, the phrase is a mild reproof to someone who asks a question that ends in the preposition for, as in “what’s that for?” I suppose that the response was irresistible to devotees of the never-end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition crowd. It probably originated in 19th century America.

In various parts of the country, the preposition for sounds just like fur. So a question ending in for/fur invited the nonsensical “cat’s fur to make kitten britches.” Britches were pants coming just below the knee, which, in this image, a mother cat was making for her offspring from her own fur. Britches (alternatively spelled breeches) also showed up in the saying,” too big for his own britches.”

The Mavens’ Word of the Day entry mentioned another nonsense response, one that I used as a youth. If someone responded with the question “so?”, the witty response was, “sew buttons.” Obviously, it was a more innocent era.

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