English, it seems, has no particular love for cats. When we are not stuffing them into bags from which they need to be let out, we are swinging them, possibly by the tail, or skinning them. And as I am sure you all know, there is more than one way to skin a cat, or indeed a rabbit, as people in some areas prefer to say.
What a gruesome expression it is! Why might we have been skinning cats?! It seems that cat fur was once an popular part of women’s fashion, as we can see in The Leisure Hour, printed by W. Stevens in 1852. You might recoil in horror at the thought today, but people in the past had no such scruples, it appears. And of course, in order to remove the fur, the cat needed to be skinned.
But the idea of skinning a cat is only a fairly recent version of this expression. English speakers have long had a penchant for cruelty to animals! It goes back to an earlier form, where it was “there are more ways to kill a dog than hanging”. This appears in 1678.
The earliest reference to the expression as it is today; “more than one way to skin a cat” is to be found in a short story, The Money Diggers in ’Way down East; or, Portraitures of Yankee Life by Seba Smith from 1840:
“This is a money digging world of ours; and, as it is said, ‘there are more ways than one to skin a cat,’ so are there more ways than one of digging for money”.
There were other versions of the expression also widely used – “there are more ways of killing a cat than choking it with cream/ butter/ pudding.” No improvement from the cat’s point of view!
Let’s take a look at what other languages have got to say. Are they all so cruel to cats?
We’ll start with German, where there seems to be a basic expression – Es führen viele Wege zum Ziel; “there are many ways to the aim”.
The Welsh expression makes me smile: mwy nag un ffordd o gael Wil i’w wely, which translates as “more than one way to get Will to his bed”. Poor old Will!
In Irish we find is iomaí bealach le cat a mharú seachas é a thachtadh le him.
There is a nice idiom in Greek, which actually flows with a lovely rhythm in its original language: το καλό το παλικάρι ξέρει και άλλο μονοπάτι (to kalo to palikari xerei kai allo monopati), which means “the good lad knows another path”.
In Turkish, the expression her yiğidin bir yoğurt yiyişi vardır literally means “every man eats yogurt his own way” imples of course that there are many ways. Certainly a much gentler approach than in English!
But this time, I like the Spanish expression for its practicality and simplicity: varios martillos para un mismo clavo, literally “several hammers for one same nail”.