Not Enough Room To Swing A Cat

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

The answers can be found in NOT ENOUGH ROOM TO SWING A CAT--NAVAL SLANG AND ITS EVERYDAY USAGE, by Martin Robson (Naval Institute Press). The pocket-sized, jauntily-written book explores the origins of British and American naval slang and describes how it has worked its colorful, sometimes profane way into the way we think and talk.

Here's what Robson has to say about swinging a cat. "The naval origin is more sinister than using a cat as a makeshift measuring device. When a seaman was to be flogged for a crime, the actual punishment would be carried out on deck. This was because in Admiral Nelson's time the 'cat' was the cat-o-nine-tails, an impressive lash which measured about four feet...Even on a large ship the room between decks was rather cramped. So the only place a cat could be swung with the force required in punishment was on deck, as below decks there was, literally, not enough room to swing a cat."

As for "gung-ho," it came out of the second world war, not the 18th or 19th centuries. The word derives from Mandarin Chinese: gonghe, meaning to work together. It was picked up by an American marine officer named Evans Carlson, "who used the work-together ethos to solve problems, which he called 'gung-ho' meetings. The phrase caught on with his unit, nicknamed Carlson's Raiders, and then spread to the USMC." Later there was a movie called Gung Ho! The Story of Carlson's Makin Island Raiders with Randolph Scott playing a fictional lieutenant based on Carlson. The film was a success and the phrase gung-ho entered American popular culture."

Packed with juicy tidbits like that, NOT ENOUGH ROOM also offers a couple of dozen illustrations by Mark Myers.