“When the cat’s away, the mice will play”
I’ve always thought this expression has a lovely rhythm to it. And of course it has a long history too.
In the early 14th century, it appears in French as ou chat na rat regne; “with no cat, the rat is king”. But this imagery bears a strong resemblance to the Latin phrase dum felis dormit, mus gaudet et exsi litantro, which translates as “when the cat sleeps, the mouse rejoices and leaps from the hole”.
Perhaps the best known historical reference to this expression in English can be found in Shakespeare’s play Henry V, in which the Earl of Westmoreland says:
“Playing the mouse in absence of the cat,
To tear and havoc more than she can eat.” (Act 1, Scene 2)
Unsurprisingly, especially considering the Latin phrase, it is also an expression that is to be found in a number of different languages, although interestingly most people prefer to think of the mice dancing rather than playing.
This is certainly true of the Slovene version: Ko mačke ni doma, miši plešejo; “when the cat is not at home, mice are dancing”. It is very similar in Italian: Quando il gatto non c’è, i topi ballano – “when the cat is not there, the mice dance”. The Modern French version has moved on a bit since the 14th century, and is now more likely to be heard as quand le chat n’est pas là, les souris dansent, which translates the same as the Italian expression. This is also the case in Greek, which uses: όταν λείπει η γάτα, χορεύουν τα ποντίκια (otan leipei i gata, horevoun ta pontikia) – which means “when the cat is not there (missing), the mice dance”.
In Spanish there are two options – one means the same as the Italian and French; cuando el gato no está los ratones bailan, and the second one, cuando el gato no está los ratones están de fiesta, means “when the cat is not there, the mice have a party”! Good for the Spanish mice! It seems they are very neighbourly and don’t mind if their Portuguese rodent friends join in; quando o gato sai, os ratos fazem a festa is the Portuguese equivalent, and it also means “when the cat is out, the mice have a party”.
Perhaps in Wales the mice don’t have a party, but they still have a good time: in Welsh we find llon llygod lle ni bo cath: “the mice are merry where there’s no cat.”
Moving on, we come to German, where if the cat is out of the house, the mice don’t just play, or even dance tamely, they dance on the table – Wenn die Katze aus dem Haus ist, tanzen die Mäuse auf dem Tisch. Similarly, in Finnish, the mice like to get up on the table, although in this case they prefer to jump: Kun kissa on poissa, hiiret hyppivät pöydällä, which translates, of course, as “When the cat is away, the mice are jumping on the table”.
Now we come to two languages in which the expression is slightly different. Firstly, in Russian they say Без кота мышам раздолье. (bez kata mysham razdolje), which means “without a cat, there is freedom for mice”.
And last but certainly not least, we come to Turkish, where the mice get really sporty! Kedi olmayınca fareler cirit atar, which is literally “when the cat doesn’t exist, the mice throw javelins”.