Catbird seat

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The gray catbird, Dumetella carolinensis, on a high perch.

"The catbird seat" is an idiomatic phrase used to describe an enviable position, often in terms of having the upper hand or greater advantage in any type of dealing among parties. It derives from the secluded perch on which the gray catbird makes mocking calls.


According to Douglas Harper's Online Etymological Dictionary, the phrase refers to the gray catbird and was used in the 19th century in the American South.[1]

According to the Oxford English Dictionary,[2] the first documented use occurred in a 1942 humorous short story by James Thurber titled "The Catbird Seat",[3] which features a character, Mrs. Barrows, who likes to use the phrase. Another character, Joey Hart, explains that Mrs. Barrows must have picked up the expression from the baseball broadcaster Red Barber, and that "sitting in the catbird seat" meant "'sitting pretty', like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him."

The phrase "in the catbird seat" was among the numerous folksy expressions used by radio sports broadcaster Red Barber. According to Barber's daughter, after her father read Thurber's story, he began using the phrase "in the catbird seat". This seems to reverse events, however, as the passage of story quoted above clearly references Barber.

According to "Colonel" Bob Edwards's book Fridays with Red, Barber claimed that Thurber got this and many other expressions from him, and that Barber had first heard the term used by Frank Koch during a poker game in Cincinnati, during the Great Depression.[4] Barber also put forth this version of events in his 1968 autobiography, Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat.[5]

On sailing ships, the catbird seat is the crow's nest, a lookout.[citation needed]

Use in popular entertainment[edit]

  • 1948: Season 1, Episode 5 of the Actors Studio was titled "The Catbird Seat"
  • 1958: P. G. Wodehouse's 1958 novel Cocktail Time used the phrase: "I get you. If we swing it, we'll be sitting pretty, ‘in the catbird seat’."
  • 1978: The original television series Dallas featured J.R. Ewing using this phrase quite often.
  • 1987: Raising Arizona included John Goodman saying "you and I'll be sittin' in the fabled catbird seat."
  • 1988: William L. Marbury Jr. called his memoirs In the Catbird Seat[6]
  • 2006: Series 3, Episode 11 of the HBO western drama, Deadwood was titled "The Catbird Seat."
  • 2009: Steve Forbert digitally released an album, Loose Change, that included a song he wrote called "The Catbird Seat"
  • 2010: Darlingside released EP 1, which features a song called "The Catbird Seat."[7]
  • 2014: In the TV series Manhattan, the phrase was used in multiple episodes as an American idiom
  • 2018–present: Shannon Sharpe uses this phrase on Skip and Shannon: Undisputed while debating with Skip Bayless, Sharpe uses the phrase often to explain who has the upper hand in the sport example "Patrick Mahomeboy is in the catbird seat for MVP".
  • 2021: In the HBO TV series Succession Season 3 Episode 7, the phrase is used to describe Logan Roy's strategic position.


  1. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Catbird". Online Etymological Dictionary. Retrieved 17 September 2006.
  2. ^ "Catbird seat". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 23 October 2008 – via
  3. ^ Thurber, J.G. (14 November 1942). "The Catbird Seat". 55 Short Stories from New Yorker.
  4. ^ Edwards, Robert A. (1993). Fridays with Red: A radio friendship. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-87013-0.
  5. ^ Barber, Red; Creamer, Robert (1968). Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat. New York, NY: Doubleday. ISBN 0-8032-6136-5.
  6. ^ Marbury, William Luke (1988). In the Catbird Seat. Baltimore, MD: Maryland Historical Society. Retrieved 18 August 2017.
  7. ^ The Catbird Seat, archived from the original on 2021-12-19, retrieved 2019-12-28