The Ecphorizer

Catbird Seat
Gareth Penn

Issue #14 (October 1982)

Perseverance in linguistic detective work pays off

Not long ago, I received a visit from my Cincinnati in-laws. My wife has lost most of Cincinnatisms, and I had forgotten what the lingo sounds like. It's not an accent but a way of giving new, unheard-of meanings to common words and then combining them in kaleidoscopic permutations to produce startling transformations.

...Cincinnati is a linguistic Black Hole...

To put it another way, Cincinnati is a linguistic Black Hole from which nothing emerges in its original form or even in its original place. It seems to have started in the days when the Queen City's second language was German. They still say "Please?" there when they want you to repeat something. I suspect that it's also the birthplace of "hopefully" as a loan-translation of hoffentlich.

Another one is "any more." In Cincinnati, it means: usually, customarily, habitually. It denotes the imperfective aspect of the verb. My brother-in--law, for instance, asked me what I was doing with myself any more. That's where the catbird seat comes in. This is what I told him.

A friend of mine who is originally from New England and has her own quaint way of expressing herself had asked me to do some research on the phrase "sitting in the catbird seat." She understood its meaning; to sit in the catbird seat is to hold a position of cocky superiority or insuperable advantage. But as a birdwatcher, she was baffled by the logic of the phrase. Most analogies with animals rest on some behavioral characteristic, real or fabulous. Hence, busy as a beaver, sly as a fox, to crawfish out of something ("to crawfish": to wiggle out backwards at high speed, gesticulating as one goes. Politicians crawfish a lot.) But she knew nothing in the catbird's behavior appropriate to the meaning of the phrase. She thought it had been coined by James Thurber in his well-known short story.

I exhausted the reference collection of the local public library to no avail. No one seems to know why the catbird, Dumetella carolinensis, has been singled out as the acme of smug superiority. It is a meek denizen of North American domestic gardens. Its call echoes the mewing of cats, hence its name. Otherwise, it is so unremarkable that any birdwatcher whose temples pound on sighting one is advised to see a doctor about the possibility of hypertension.

The phrase, of course, is not a Thurberism, but a Barberism. It is generally attributed to Walter Lanier ("Red") Barber, who introduced it into general usage in his baseball commentaries on the radio. Thomas Middleton, who has researched the matter quite thoroughly, quotes Barber as having learned the expression from one Frank Koch in the course of a late-night poker game in Cincinnati during the late 1930's. (Barber was on WLW in Cincinnati from 1934 to 1939.) There the trail turns cold. As far as the record attests, Koch's use of "catbird seat" during that poker game is a hapax legomenon.Why the behaviorally drab catbird? It just made no sense. Stumped, I forwarded the question to a prominent authority in these parts, whose only contribution was a pedantic grumble that Middleton had muddled "Koch" out of "Cope". I can't pretend to know who is right about the KochCope Controversy. The truth is just another verbal victim of the Cincinnati Triangle. That was the state of affairs I reported to my brother-in-jaw in response to his question about what I was doing any more.

"Do you mean to say," he asked, "that you've never seen a catbird dive-bomb a cat? That's where it comes from. The catbird attacks a cat and then perches somewhere up out of the cat's reach and razzes him. The cat can't get back at him, and he knows it." Catbird? I double-took. "Sure, because it pesters cats."

Suddenly I knew the heady feeling of breathless triumph that came over Michael Ventris when Linear B finally clicked into place. The central fact, the missing piece of the puzzle had been right in front of my nose all along: the poker game was Cincinnati. Frank Koch, or Cope, or whatever his name was, spoke the lingo. "Catbird" as he used it therefore does not mean "catbird." Ipso facto, it means something else.

What they call a catbird in Cincinnati is what the rest of the English-speaking world calls a mockingbird (Mimus ployglottos) - a mere shirt-tail cousin of D. carolinensis. Behaviorally, the mockingbird is in a position of advantage over the cat. "Seat" is just an appendage meaning "position." Thus, when turning over one's hole card to reveal a filled inside straight, "I was sitting in the catbird seat on that one." Smug, superior, untouchable.

But I wanted to make sure that I had heard my brother-in-law correctly while all of this was surging through my mind. I miss a lot any more when double-taking. I wanted him to repeat what he had just said. I cocked my head to one side like a catbird looking for a cat to pounce on. "Please?" I asked. 

Garfield Shaeffer is the pen name of Gareth Penn, who may not know more than anyone else, but sure knows how to research his projects.

More Articles by Gareth Penn

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