Throw the cat among the pigeons

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Throwing (also putting and setting) the cat among the pigeons is a British idiom used to describe a disturbance caused by an undesirable person from the perspective of a group.

Another use of the term is to "cause an enormous fight or flap, usually by revealing a controversial fact or secret", or in other words: to do something suddenly or unexpectedly which leaves the people worried or angry.[1][2]

History and usage[edit]

The phrase originally referred to the disturbance likely to be created by putting a cat inside a dovecote (or dove house).[3] This disturbance is caused by the cat's tendency to hunt and kill the birds, only made easier by their close proximity.[4]

Similarity in other languages and cultures[edit]

Whilst being similar to other idioms such as the German-language phrase das fünfte Rad am Wagen (the fifth wheel on the car), in this case there is an element of aggression, and a power differential becomes the key element in the undesirability.[5] The Spanish-language version of the phrase is alborotar a todo el palomar.[2] In Russian, there is a proverb similar in meaning "пустить козла в огород" (let a goat into the garden).

In colonial India, a popular pastime was to put a wild cat in a pen with pigeons. Bets would be made on how many birds the cat would bring down with one paw-swipe. The period of the British colonisation of India may have introduced this concept, and hence the phrase to the English language.[6]

In popular culture[edit]

Cat Among the Pigeons (1959) is the title of a detective-fiction novel by English writer Agatha Christie.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jose, Sunil (22 March 2010). "Set the cat among the pigeons". Know Your English. Retrieved 20 October 2013. 
  2. ^ a b "alborotar a todo el palomar". (in Spanish). Retrieved 20 October 2013. 
  3. ^ "Expressions & Sayings". Scorpio Tales. Retrieved 20 October 2013. 
  4. ^ Frisch, Sheryl. "Session 7: Throwing the Cat among the Pigeons: Keeping Visual Resources Viable through the Digital Transition". Retrieved 20 October 2013. 
  5. ^ "Re: A cat among pigeons". The Phrase Finder. 5 May 2002. Retrieved 20 October 2013. 
  6. ^ Jain, Dipti (12 March 2006). "What is origin of the phrase 'to set the cat among pigeons'?". The Times of India. Retrieved 20 October 2013.