Ahoy Brethren and welcome once again to Sailor Mouth Saturday. Its time to briefly discuss naval discipline and that ubiquitous tool of same: the cat o' nine tails.
Called simple the cat by seamen, the thing was a wicked combination of rope, knots, sometimes sharp objects and human muscle. Swung with enough force, the cat could flay a man's back in ten to twenty strokes. This was followed by a nice dousing of seawater and then a return to duty if the victim was capable, which he generally was not. Most cats consisted of nine ropes tied with nine knots each, and that alone would do enough damage thank you very much. Particularly sadistic bosuns and captains - and notoriously pirates as well - would add things like hooks, barbs or broken glass to the knots. I don't think further detail is necessary.
The old saying about the Royal Navy and its appetite for rum, buggery and the lash not withstanding, what is interesting is how many of our modern phrases have descended from the vocabulary of applying the cat.
First off, the cat was hung in a bag from the main mast. Different navies used
different colors of cloth. For instance, the Royal Navy used red cloth while the American Navy used green. Pirate like black or purple. When a flogging was in the offing, sailors would alert one another by passing the word that the "cat was out of the bag". The ritual of shipboard discipline involved most if not all members of a crew witnessing the punishment and superstitious sailors were ritually quiet before, during and after a flogging. Chiding officers would ask them if the "cat got their tongue" as a way to remind them what falling out of line would mean. "You could be next," they were saying.
A small ship might not allow enough space on deck for the bosun or his strong man to truly make the blows count. Ships like this were said to have "no room to swing a cat". The fact that the origin of this term has been forgotten by many became obvious when people started adding the word "dead" as if the term implied picking up Whisker's cold body by the tail and flailing it over head.
Considering that every blow was actually multiplied by nine, flogging with a cat could be particularly horrific. Sailors who had particular friends, and who were in a position to use the cat if necessary, would make pacts with their mates to go easy on each other should the dreaded moment present itself. A simple scratch that drew blood for the officers' benefit but didn't pull meat from the bone would ensure a sailor's well being after the fact. Thus, promises of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" were born. The sailors would suffer only flesh injuries and walk away "no worse for the wear."
So put the cat back in the bag, Brethren, and remember the seamen who suffered every time these terms slip from your lips. Stop by again soon, and enjoy your flogging free Saturday... (I mean, unless you're into that sort of thing).