Bell the Cat

Meaning of “Bell the Cat”

The phrase “bell the cat” means to hang a bell around the neck of the cat. This is done to alert the rats if the cat is about to attack them. The phrase also means to take up a task or a job that is difficult to perform.

Origin of “Bell the Cat”

The phrase “bell the cat” is supposedly derived from an Aesop’s fable about the mice,  The Mice in Council. Interestingly, however, there is no such tale in those fables. The phrase is rather attributed to a Scottish noble, Archibald Douglas, who at the behest of Lord Gray, wanted to dethrone James III, but had no courage to do so. Lord Gray is stated to have said to him, “but what daur bell the cat?”

Examples in Literature

Example #1:

Who Will Bell the Cat? by Pat McKissack

Pat McKissack has beautifully retold the fable that is often attributed to Aesop. However, there is no solid evidence of whether the fable was part of Aesop’s writing. The story retold from some sources, state the story of the mice. Taking refuge in the mice barn, the tabby cat soon recovers and starts hunting them. However, they call an assembly to think about the possible ways of containing this threat to their tribe. They found a bell, but there is always a question with them who is to hang around the neck of the cat. The book is written for children to teach them a moral lesson. Therefore, it is illustrated with colorful pictures.

Example #2:

But Who Will Bell the Cats? by Cynthia von Buhler

Similar to Pat McKissack’s book, Cynthia von Buhler has also presented the book about the mice.  The mice are weaving a plan to bell the cat, but the question is still the same who will do it. Living in the basement, they befriend a bat who helps them to make and implement the plans. However, there are many cats, blocking their ways. The use of the phrase in the title of the book reminds the same story, but it is retold with a little difference. Here ‘bell the cat’ means to manage something risky and to warn others before the dangers happen.

Example #3

A Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs: Explained and Made Intelligible by James Kelly

“The nobility of Scotland entered into a conspiracy against one Spence, the favorite of King James the Sd. It was proposed to go in a body to Stirling, to take Spence and hang him, and then to offer their service to the king as his natural counsellors. The Lord Gray says, it is well said, but who will bell the cat; alluding to the fable of the mice proposing to put a bell about the cat’s neck, that they might be apprised of her coming. The Earl of Angus answered, I will bell the cat; which he effected, and was ever after call’d Archibald bell the Cat.”

The above paragraph takes about the origin of the proverb. It argues that the phrase has been derived from one of the fables of Aesop and then attribute it to the Lord Gray of Scotland who has used it for the first time. Then the reply of the Earl of Angus shows that he has responded to this phrase. The meanings of the phrase are clear that somebody takes the risk of how to do a dangerous thing.

Example #4

Recollections from a Crawlway by Kalpana M. Naghnoor

Now, who was to bell the cat? Which one of us was to confront Paul’s father? There were no volunteers. Then who was to hint to Mrs. Paul about her husband’s misadventures? Again there were no takers. We were a bunch of lily-livered men, not yet bold enough to face life and its vagaries. Not only fit enough to bell the cat. Cat, there is something so damned feline about Mrs. Singh. She looks like a fat Persian cat; her come-hither eyes are so very seductive.

The above paragraph presents the dilemma of how to tackle an uncontrollable father. Paul’s situation becomes worse, for he could not explain to his father to come to his senses. As there was no person to take the risk, not even his mother, it has been shown through the use of this phrase. The writer Naghnoor has used this phrase repeatedly in its literal sense that it was an uphill task to warn the father about his acts.

Examples in Sentences

Example #1: “John Stevenson says who will bell the cat though he knows his own power.”

Example #2: “If you want to warn someone in the class before the teacher enters, get someone stand at the door to bell the cat.”

Example #3: “If you watched Tom and Jerry, Jerry always escapes because someone has already decided to bell the cat.”

Example #4: “Caleb took a risk no one was willing to take when he was working at the nuclear plant. He was brave enough to bell the cat.”

Example #5: “The world leaders should be brave enough to tackle real problems and bell the cat to stop all the wars.”