Posted 28 October 2008 in Books by Catriona
I keep coming across the phrase “kittle-cattle.”
I remember seeing it in Anne of the Island, the fourth Anne book, in which Anne attends Redmond College to gain her B. A. (before marrying a country doctor, having seven children, and never using her education again): when Anne publishes her first piece of fiction, her housemate describes authors as “kittle-cattle.”
I came across it again in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise, when Wimsey intends to use it in a margarine advertisement, but the account manager tells him he can’t call the customers “cows.” (Or was that another advertisement? Was the “kittle-cattle” slogan the one where the margarine manager was obscurely worried that it was “Scottish”? I can’t recall now, and it’s too early to look it up.)
And I’ve just come across it again in a Georgette Heyer murder mystery (which I’m re-reading, because I’m strangely exhausted and can’t concentrate on new fiction for my late night reading).
It’s never occurred to me to actually look up what the phrase means, until I read it in Heyer this morning and thought, “Sod it. I have no idea what that phrase means. Where’s my Brewer’s hiding?”
Apparently, though, Brewer’s can’t help me. I’ve looked under “kittle” and I’ve looked under “cattle”—given the book’s odd indexing system—and I can’t see anything.
It’s not like Brewer’s to let me down—except on the indexing front.
It’s even rarer that Benet’s lets me down, but there’s nothing in there, either.
How odd. Maybe I did try to look it up, couldn’t find it in either of my mainstays, and forgot about the entire attempt, because it’s an intensely boring story not worthy of a paragraph on the blog?
Still, the Internet will help me.
According to this site, it’s an adjective, archaic, meaning “difficult to deal with.”
That would never have occurred to me, but it fits with the way in which I’ve seen it used in various texts.
(I would have assumed it was a noun, before looking it up, but I can see it’s an adjective if I think of the Anne of the Island example: “Authors are kittle-cattle.” Sorry: slipped into marking mode for a minute there, impelled by the reproachful looks from the enormous pile of marking on my right hand, which thinks I should be paying attention to it. Which I should.)
Apparently, it has a sixteenth-century origin, from “kittle” (now chiefly Scottish and dialectical) meaning “to tickle.”
So, essentially, if something or someone is “kittle-cattle,” it’s a ticklish situation. That is interesting.
(And that, in a nutshell, is why I usually blog in the evenings. Not a morning person, me.)