More Than One Way to Skin a Cat

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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.

More than one way to skin a cat means there are various ways to accomplish the same task. The saying is a proverb, which is a short, common saying or phrase that particularly gives advice or shares a universal truth. Proverbs are generally similar in nature across languages and are accepted as forms of analogy to add detail to writing and speech. 

So where did this peculiar phrase come from? Its roots can be traced back to a British variant from the 17th century. And then, the legendary Mark Twain swung it into American pop culture in the late 1800s. The fascinating part? Its core meaning hasn’t wavered a whisker since those early days.

Continue reading to learn more about this proverb’s usage, similar variations, and examples to help you elevate your material. 

There’s more than one way to skin a cat means there are many ways to do something; there are many ways to achieve a goal. The oldest known use of the phrase dates back to works by the author Seba Smith, and is coined as early as 1840 within The Money Diggers in Way down East; or, Portraitures of Yankee Life published in 1854.

More Than One Way to Skin a Cat

Popularity Over Time

However, there’s more than one way to skin a cat has its roots in older, similar phrases within both England and America surrounding the use of domesticated animals.

The earliest alternate version appears in 1678, in John Ray’s collection of English proverbs as there are more ways to kill a dog than hanging, with the popular British version, there are more ways of killing a cat than choking it with cream.

As mentioned, the exact phrase in question first appeared in text within Seba’s work to help explain there is more than one way to dig for money within the story of a man obsessed with finding treasure.

This suggests that by 1840, the term was familiar enough to people to understand it as an analogy to help clarify a point trying to be made. And that there was more than one way to complete a task. 

way to skin a cat english

It continued in various formats through the 1800s with popular writers of the time, such as Charles Kingsley’s use of the old British form in Westward Ho! published in 1855: there are more ways of killing a cat than choking it with cream.

Other versions pop up through this time as well, including, there are more ways of killing a cat than by choking it with butter, and there are more ways of killing a dog than choking him with pudding.

Even Mark Twain got in on the action within his story A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889 when describing the Church: “she was wise, subtle, and knew more than one way to skin a cat”, meaning there was more than one way to get what she wanted.

Modern Uses

The phrase still exists, but has taken on some local flavor in certain areas. For example, in the US Southern states, the phrase is often used to describe the skinning of a catfish, a flavorful dish when fried up with various seasonings. In this version, the word “cat” is a simplification of “catfish.”

It also has moved well outside its original use, and to skin a cat is used to describe a gymnastic move by children on the playground when they pass their feet and legs between their arms while hanging by the hands from a set of horizontal bars. Reminiscent of turning an animal’s skin inside out as part of the removal process.

Origination of the Phrase

Where, exactly, did this seemingly gruesome phrase originate from? Interestingly enough, the Pine Marten (part of the weasel family) has the nickname “treecat” in Ireland, and has long been called by this name.

This term most likely spread through the UK as well, especially since the fur of a Pine Marten is considered exceptional. Wild felines have also long been hunted and bred for furs. 

Over time the domesticated cat became a cheap substitute for these wild options, as seen through various short stories, such as Gogol’s The Overcoat, (1842) in which an impoverished clerk needs a new overcoat. He scrapes together the necessary sum and when Marten fur proves to be too expensive, he selects cat fur as a substitute.

In Germany, we even see a play on names to substitute cat for hare’s fur, for example, cat was “beunhoas” (loft-hare), “dakhoas”(roof-hare) and balkhoas (beam-hare).

Unfortunately to our modern senses, cat fur has long been considered a more affordable substitute for more luxurious furs. Long before the synthetic fabric craze, garments were made from natural sources, and fur was highly sought after not only for fashion but also for durable warmth.

Even today the buying and selling of cat fur in some countries is not illegal despite the introduction of anti-cruelty laws within the 19th Century. 

The earliest reference in writing is found in a 13th-century rule for nuns, stating, “You shall not possess any beast, my dear sisters, except only a cat”.

This was to mean that they could use cheap cat fur in their clothing while more expensive furs were reserved for higher church clergy and officials. 


More Than One Way to Skin a Cat 1

What I don’t understand, however, is why law firms seem to believe that there is only one way to skin a cat. (The Globe and Mail)

Ajax this time round named a young starting XI but Mourinho has always done his own thing and shown that there is more than one way to skin a cat. (The Manchester Evening News)

“There aren’t a lot of ways to skin a cat — that’s BS,” Wakefield says with the conviction of a man who has coached football one way for 45 years. (The Ames Tribune)

While the accepted wisdom in the Championship is to play two men forward, prioritise percentage play – set pieces, crossing at high volume, long balls forward – and build a team around players who’ve proven themselves in that division, Wagner quickly proved that there was more than one way to skin a cat. (The Huddersfield Daily Examiner)

Wrapping It Up

There’s more than one way to skin a cat has a decently horrifying background when you consider they are amongst our favorite household pets. But, cats once were seen (and in some places still are) as an affordable option for those unable or unwilling to pay for more expensive furs.

By the time the phrase was put on paper, it already was a familiar enough practice when the point to make was that there was more than one way to accomplish a task.