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How to Buy a Cat in the Bag

For a start, there is a blog called Cat in the Bag that I love for its witty observations and funny captions to the photos.

Then, here is a very detailed instruction on how to find a missing pet. The website is called Cats in the Bag, and one of the advice is particularly sound: “think like your pet”. So, next time your pet is missing, put yourself in his skin and ask, where you would hide out while your owner was hoovering the room.

The rest of the post, however, is about the actual saying “cat in the bag” and its diverse and sundry equivalents. The phrase “cat in the bag” refers to the times of food scarcity when smart market sellers tried to fool the buyers by offering them a cat or a puppy in the bag instead of meat. The majority of languages, as we can see, share this experience.

Bulgarian да купиш котка в торба to buy a cat in a bag
Catalan fer passar gat per llebre to give a cat instead of a hare
Croatian kupiti mačka u vreći to buy a cat in a sack
Czech koupit zajíce v pytli to buy a hare in a sack
Danish at købe katten i sækken to buy the cat in the sack
Dutch een kat in de zak kopen to buy a cat in the sack
English to buy a pig in a poke
Estonian ostma põrsast kotis to buy a piglet in a sack
French acheter un chat dans un sac to buy a cat in a bag
Finnish ostaa sika säkissä to buy a pig in a sack
German die Katze im Sack kaufen to buy the cat in the sack
Greek αγοράζω γουρούνι στο σακκί to buy a pig in a sack
Hebrew חתול בשק cat in a sack
Hungarian zsákbamacska cat in a sack
Icelandic að kaupa köttinn í sekknum to buy the cat in the sack
Indonesian kucing dalam karung cat in a sack
Irish ceannaigh muc i mala buying a pig in a bag
Latvian pirkt kaķi maisā to buy a cat in a sack
Lithuanian pirkti katę maiše to buy a cat in a sack
Luxembourgish d’Kaz am Sak kafen to buy the cat in a sack
Macedonian да купиш мачка во вреќа to buy the cat in the sack
Norwegian kjøpe katta i sekken to buy the cat in the sack
Polish kupić kota w worku to buy a cat in a sack
Portuguese comprar gato por lebre to buy a cat instead of a hare
Romanian a cumpăra cu ochii închiși to buy with closed eyes
Russian купить кота в мешке to buy a cat in a sack
Spanish dar gato por liebre to give a cat instead of a hare
Spanish hay gato encerrado there is a cat shut inside
Serbian купити мачку у џаку to buy a cat in a sack
Slovak kúpiť mačku vo vreci to buy a cat in a sack
Slovene kupiti mačka v žaklju to buy a cat in a sack
Swedish köpa grisen i säcken to buy the pig in the sack

Catalan, Spanish, and Portuguese buyers could mistake a cat for a hare, hence respective idioms reflect that. In Czech, however, it is a hare that was sold instead of meat in the bag; I suspect, though, that some buyers wouldn’t mind cooking a rabbit.

And a few geographically close countries also share the variant of “pig in a poke” (poke – a bag). English and Irish, Estonian, Finnish, and Swedish, all have experienced buying something without prior knowledge.

Even Greeks occasionally were sold a pig in a sack, and I wondered, why. Greece is surrounded by countries where it were cats that were put in the bags. A possible answer may be that piglets that were usually sold in a bag, thanks to their small size, were considered polluted. Susan Cole, Associate Professor at the Buffalo University, explained in 2000:

Polluted objects were not only not eaten, but avoided for fear of contamination, except when their ‘foulness’ could be ritually controlled. Ritual sacrifice then, could accommodate a piglet’s nastier qualities, whereas the dining room could not.

Still, I’d prefer to end of a positive note, by sharing this wonderful image of a very smart cat in the sack (that may also remind you of the Cheshire Cat) and referring you to a short story by O’Henry, The Green Door. For every pig or cat in the sack there may surely be something worthwhile, beautiful and meaningful. Perhaps, it pays sometimes to be happy about whatever you find in the bag.

Author: Julia Shuvalova

Julia Shuvalova is the author of Los Cuadernos de Julia blog. She is an author of several books, a translator, and a Foreign Languages tutor. She lives and works in Moscow, Russia.

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