Bell the Cat (or To Bell the Cat) – Idiom & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

The English language is full of nonsensical phrases with figurative meanings. Many have fallen into disuse over the years, yet have interesting origins and, when understood, can be helpful when reading many literary works.

As a literary buff myself, I’ll admit I have only once come across the term bell the cat, but it has a unique history and easy-to-understand use worth learning. This idiom is attributed to Aesop’s fables and is considered a phrase to know lest you make the same mistakes as the characters in the story.

Let’s explore the meaning behind bell the cat and how you can use it in your materials.

What Is the Meaning of Bell the Cat?

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To bell the cat means to attempt or agree to attempt an impossibly difficult task that, if achieved, will benefit the entire community. It most likely originated with a fable as a proverb or phrase used to provide advice and is used in various forms throughout history to highlight a risk taken for benefit.

The phrase can reference more personal situations that require an individual to overcome difficulty in both physical and/or mental aspects in order to achieve something. These tasks are generally viewed as having a degree of danger or uncertainty involved (such as entering into a new, unknown relationship) and, if completed, may be referred to as having belled the cat.

For example:

  • When it comes time for the legislature to do the right thing, most back away from the personal ire they will face and lack the courage to bell the cat.
  • She considered she was actively belling the cat in her attempts to share the research that would set the scientific community at odds with each other, but she felt the effort was worth taking if it saved lives.

Where Did Bell the Cat Originate From?

The idiom bell the cat comes from a fable attributed to the Middle Ages called The Mice in Council. In the fable, a group of mice decides that the best way to deal with a murderous cat is to put a bell around his neck so that he can no longer sneak up on the mice. The trouble comes when it’s time to decide which mouse will be the one to risk his life to put the bell around the cat’s neck.

The fable’s moral is that don’t only consider the outcome when making plans; the plan itself must be achievable or useless. Today, to bell the cat means to risk one’s well-being in order to perform a difficult task that, if achieved, will benefit the entire community.

Fables are fictional stories that provide a moral lesson. Characters are usually animals, and the stories are told in a short, easy-to-understand format so they can be retold orally and easily understood by an illiterate audience.

Many people attribute this story to Aesop, of Aesop’s fables, a slave and storyteller who lived around 564 BC. But no story is proven to be in this original collection. However, many fables and proverbs have made their way into the list of Aesop’s fables through the years, until it is hard to determine the many origins whence they come. And it is generally categorized along with Aesop’s proverbial wisdom.

Bell the cat is most likely attributed to its reference by the Lord Gray of Scotland, the 5th Earl of Angus, who lived in the late 15th century. He earned the nickname Archibald’ Bell the Cat’ after entering into a conspiracy against James III of Scotland after he initiated action against a king’s man as a prelude to the arrest of the king. Hence he belled the cat in doing so or took great personal risk through this action.

Let’s Review

Bell the cat is an idiomatic phrase that stems from a fable or proverb told to provide sound advice. It stems from a story of mice attempting to save their homes and lives from a hunting cat upon which they want to hang a bell around its neck to warn them of the cat’s approach. However, the question remains to whom the dangerous task will fall.

The expression means to undergo risky behaviors for a positive end result and to weigh the risk against the end benefits.