When the cat’s away the mice will play

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When the cat’s away the mice will play is a rhyming proverb that has been in use for hundreds of years, though it may be more often spoken rather than written. It is also multilingual. We will examine the meaning of this phrase, where it came from and some examples of its use in sentences.

When the cat’s away the mice will play means that without supervision, people will not do their jobs and will instead engage in entertaining activities or lazy behavior. For instance, if a teacher leaves a room her pupils may talk with each other or throw things around the classroom rather than do their work. If a boss leaves town, his office workers may take extra-long lunches or make personal phone calls rather than do their work. The phrase when the cat’s away the mice will play is a particularly pleasing proverb to quote, due to the rhythm and the rhyme of the expression. It is popular in both American English and British English.

There is no single, concise word that may be found in a thesaurus to act as a synonym. After all, when the cat’s away the mice will play is an entire sentence. Laziness, sneakiness or indolence may describe the actions of the proverbial mice, but do not capture the fact that it is because of the absence of the proverbial cat. The expression when the cat’s away the mice will play is derived from a Latin phrase, dum felis dormit, mus gaudet et exsi litantro. A literal translation is when the cat sleeps, the mouse leaves its hole, rejoicing. This medieval Latin phrase gave rise to similar expressions in many different languages. For instance, the Russian translation is Без кота мышам раздолье. (bez kata mysham razdolje), which literally means without a cat, there is freedom for mice. The German translation is Wenn die Katze aus dem Haus ist, tanzen die Mäuse auf dem Tisch, which when literally translated means when the cat is out of the house, then the mice dance upon the table. The Spanish translation may be either cuando el gato no está los ratones hacen fiesta, which one may translate as when the cat is not here, the mice have a party, or cuando el gato no está, los ratones bailan, which means when the cat is not here, the mice dance. Though these phrases have slightly different literal meanings and terminology, the idea is the same, and may all be considered translations of the original Latin sentiment. Note that in the English phrase when the cat’s away the mice will play, the word cat’s is a contraction of the words cat is, and therefore requires an apostrophe as punctuation.


Meanwhile, the pair’s famous mother Catherine, 48, also had her say, quipping: “When the cat’s away the mice will play!” (The Daily Express)

It was a classic when-the-cat’s-away example of how Tories can dispose of their leaders. (Bloomberg News)

Cats and the mice that play when the cat’s away have nothing on this household of hate and subservience. (The Advertiser)

And where the fish avoid, the species they eat proper, a marine version of ‘when the cat’s away, the mice will play.’ (Discover Magazine)