by Catriona Mills

Kittle-Cattle

Posted 27 October 2008 in 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.)

Share your thoughts [4]

1

Adam wrote at Aug 14, 12:39 PM

Hey, great post! I was wondering this exact thing after going through the Dorothy Sayers mystery “Murder Must Advertise”. I think Whimsey uses in in reference to one of the ads for Nutrax (the ones being used to signal the drug dealing gang) when he and Inspector Parker are going through the list of starting letters and associated pubs.

I found another reference to this in “A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English” by Partridge and Beale. In Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” (another of Sayers favorites) it is used as you suggest, but in other contexts it seems to be more intentionally derogatory of women.

I’m glad I’m not the only one with this turn of phrase stuck in their heads. Keep up the good work. Best, Adam

2

KDT wrote at Apr 5, 04:53 PM

Found this site after trying to look up the meaning of the phrase “Kittle Cattle”, which I found in the introduction to the first Giles Annual by John Jordan, the Editor of the Sunday Express – seen online here:

http://www.gilescartoons.co.uk/annual.asp?id=1

I had misread it and thought it was Kittie, thus an early version of the phrase “like herding cats”

3

David B wrote at Aug 11, 08:45 AM

I think the meaning is more like ‘capricious’ or ‘unpredictable’ – as if you are irritating a herd of cattle by tickling (‘kittling’) them.
It is not derogatory, or not necessarily so. See for example the introduction to ‘Dont’s for Husbands’ by Blanche Ebbutt (1913, and still in print) where she says ‘Women, married or single, are kittle-cattle; and as for men – well, I have a husband myself’

4

Jenni wrote at Nov 11, 08:42 PM

I have come across kittle-cattle for the first time in the story I am currently reading “the Case of the Late Pig” by Margery Allingham. Mr Campion, the detective hero,is investigating a murder. Thank u all for your research and comments.

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