I was once in a class in which the professor was illustrating for us the many ways there were to accomplish a particular feat. He set up his demonstration and then executed it. Then he looked at the class, raised one eyebrow, and with a cocked smile said, “But there is more than one way to skin a cat.” From there he performed a series of exhibitions, none of which I bothered to watch because, well, I didn’t really care.
The one thing that did strike me that day was that phrase: “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” It’s not like I’ve never heard the term before. But for some reason, on this day, it struck me – what a peculiar turn a phrase. How in the world did that make it into our lexicon of acceptable, everyday idioms? In fact, after someone said that for the very first time, how did it ever get repeated a second time?
Here is the thing – there is a more than one way to do a lot of things. There is more than one way to make a banana-nut muffin. Some people prefer to use ripened bananas, while some prefer the desperately over-ripened, pitch-black banana. Some mince their bananas before mixing them into the batter, while others like to mash them. Some use pecans, some use almonds, some use coconuts, which aren’t even nuts, but have “nut” in the name, so why not? Some mix the nuts in, some sprinkle them on top. No two banana-nut muffins are made the same; there are about a zillion ways to make banana nut muffins.
There’s more than one way to groom a poodle. For someone showing a poodle professionally, the dog is required to don the Traditional Lion Trim, and that alone comes in four different varieties. You’ve got your Puppy Clip, the English Shade, the Continental, and the famous Modified Continental where every bit of pooch is covered with poofy white curls except his skinny, naked butt. And that’s just for show dogs. Pet owners have an even wider variety to choose from, ranging from the fun-loving Bikini Clip (oh yes, that’s right, bikini lines aren’t just for humans anymore) to the down-to-earth Town and Country look, a haircut that allows the poodle to keep enough of its hair that it almost looks like a real dog. The possibilities for your poodle’s bouffant are endless.
There’s more than one way to eat a Reese’s; there has to be, seeing as there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s.
So why, when we can say something as mundane, as widely-accepted, and as irrefutable as “there is more than one way to make a banana-nut muffin” or “there’s more than one way to do your poochie’s do” must we be expressing our options by skinning cats? No matter how many ways there are to skin a cat (and I have to guess there really aren’t all that many), I guarantee you there are innumerable more ways to innumerable other things.
This also poses the more important question, why are we skinning cats at all? This is an English idiom, and to the best of my knowledge, cat is not an acceptable dish in any English-speaking country. Even if the phrase had been, “there is more than one way to skin a bear” or “a rabbit” or “a deer” or “gut a trout,” at least we’d be removing the outer layer of something we’d potentially be eating. Skinning a cat is like pulling the wings off of flies, only several thousand times worse. Perhaps the phrase should be “there is more than one way to suspect your neighbor’s kid needs serious psychological help.”
According to the internet (I really, really love how I can take literally a world of information and lump it into one source), there are many roots to our endearing “skinning a cat” term. Some likenesses were found in some 17th, 18th and 19th century English literature, where there were “many ways to kill a cat, rather than choking it with cream.” Upon first reading I thought that was much better; at least it seemed less terrifying. But as it sunk in, perhaps choking the cat is actually worse. I am one hundred percent sure that no one I know has ever, and would never have, even considered skinning a cat. But I can think of one or two people who may have stood by idly while Fluffy chocked on her own half-and-half. Or some who may have thought it was funny to pour some Absolut Citron in said creamer, and watched her choke on that. Choking is more practical than skinning, and perhaps in its practicality, a little more frightening.
I dug for further meaning and had to stop upon the exposition, “Writers have pointed to its use in the southern states of the US.” And to this all I could do was to shake my head and sigh. Of course they’re the ones skinning cats, I thought. While it is true that the southern states of the US are filled with a rich and unique culture, it’s undeniable that when anyone begins to mention the South, those of us who were raised above the Mason-Dixon line start that same clenching cringe one gets when someone mentions your unemployed, conspiracy-theorist of a stoner brother in polite company. Yeah, he’s your brother and you love him, but who wants to explain to the neighbors about his nude sledding accident off your roof last Christmas? That’s the South.
But, fortunately, I was very wrong in my judgmental assessment. Apparently, in the South “cat” is a frequent abbreviation for “catfish” which is, of course, removed of its skin before being serving as food. What a relief. No nude sledding accident explanations necessary.
It seems that there is more than one way to skin a catfish, not an actual cat. That is nice to know, and it does make me feel better; I can shake all those disturbing visuals of a hardened, voo-doo princess yanking a cat into the air by its tail, smiling at it while brandishing a rusty knife. Chilling. On the other hand, look at all the work I had to go through to rinse away the terror imposed by what is supposed to be a harmless, everyday, nothing-so-special turn of phrase. Couldn’t this all have been avoided if we had just started out with something more innocent? Something that didn’t need to be skinned at all, perhaps? A banana-nut muffin, maybe? Because, even knowing the root of this coarse American expression, I still feel the need to wash Fluffy’s blood from my hands.