The origin of this phrase is traced as back as 1598 to Ben Johnson, who used it in his comedy, Every Man in His Humor. Later, various other authors modified it and used in their works. For example, John Hendricks Bechtel used it in his book “Proverbs: Maxims and Phrases.” Johnson used it in Act-I, Scene-IV of his play, Every Man in His Humour, where a character, Cob speaks it at the end of the act thus; “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.” Here this expression is used to try to prohibit someone from asking unnecessary questions and exploring unsolicited details.
Inquisitiveness or curiosity can lead people into dangerous or risky situations. If people take too much interest in things they need not know, they could get into trouble. They might be causing themselves problems by getting into things not concerning them. Simply this phrase highlights the curious side of cats, which is no surprise to any owner of pets. It is because cats are generally very curious creatures that stick their noses in where they have nothing to do, and their curiosity could lead them into danger, sometimes taking their lives.
This phrase is widely applied in different areas of life. It is used when a person discourages a nosy or prying person from asking too many questions he or she need not know. In such cases, that person may not be killed, if he or she does not pay attention. Another example is an individual warning his friend against doing something, which could be physically dangerous for the sake of curiosity, such as when he wishes to explore and do skydiving without having any experience of it.
Ben Johnson has used these lines in his popular play, Every Man in His Humour. Cob, a character in this play, uses it by saying that;
“I would I had it. I shall ha’it, he says the next action. Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.”
(Act-I, Scene-IV, Lines, 77-79)
Simply, these lines say that if you are too much inquisitive and poke your nose into things do not concern you, then you may face serious consequences.
This phrase has layers of meanings. In this context, is perfectly showing how it should be used for curious persons. In fact, cats are the noisiest of all creatures and curios too, poking nose into everywhere. Just like cats, these lines tell a general resentment towards unnecessary curiosity. It serves a warning that following an unnecessary curiosity or investigating could be dangerous. Like cats being curious creatures, people who are curious, have a tendency to get into unpleasant situations. For instance, someone exploring a dangerous situation and getting into difficulty, may be considered a stupid for attempting to satisfy his/her curiosity, and deserving ill fate that he has stumbled upon.
- Proverb: A proverb warning of being inquisitive could lead to harmful results
- Tone: Didactic
- Alliteration: A consonant sound “k” has been repeated in the phrase to make it melodious.