Catbird seat

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

"The catbird seat" is an American English 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. The phrase derives from the common catbird's habit of making mocking calls from a secluded perch.


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 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]


  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, retrieved 2019-12-28