The Ecphorizer

Letters - Issue 19

Issue #19 (March 1983)

Dear Editor:

We just got around to reading about the great "Catbird" controversy in October's issue of THE ECPHORIZER.

The answer to the origin of "The Catbird Seat" seems to be as follows:

Mockingbirds could be mistaken for catbirds, whose name is derived not from their penchant for attacking cats, but from the mewing sound they make. Catbirds, Mockingbirds and Thrashers are pretty much the same body shape and size.

All birds larger than sparrows attack mammals...up to and including humans. Jays and Mockingbirds are most happy at that pursuit.

The real reason for the term "Catbird Seat" is that the Mocker, mistaken for the catbird, often sits on the highest point...the very tiptop branch of a tall tree, or a TV aerial, and sounds off announcing his territory. One is attracted by the continuous racket and looks to see the bird doing his specialty.

As a part-time bird-watcher, we can attest to this behavior, having noticed it for a number of years.

The bird is, as you state, in a very high to observe the world (and his territory) and be safe from attack.

Catbirds, on the other hand, are much less raucous and bold. They scratch about the ground, then hide in low bushes...seldom wasting allthat energy to attain heights and holler. They also have a limited vocabulary, and are not known for multiple melodies.

We trust that the situation has been cleared up.

Llovable Lloyd Teitsworth
Wilmington, DE

Gareth Penn Replies:
Dear Mr. Teitsworth:

George Towner has forwarded to me a copy of your letter in which you commented on my contribution to THE ECPHORIZOR on the subject of the origin of the phrase, "sitting in the catbird seat."

I don't think there ever was any controversy over the aggressive behavior of mockingbirds toward cats, as you seem to suggest. And I don't think that the phrase arose out of a confusion of the mockingbird with the catbird. My brother-in-law, Rick Lance Winterrowd, of Cincinnati, has indicated to me that the mockingbird is commonly called "catbird" in Cincinnati and its environs because it attacks cats.

The self-effacing behavior of the catbird which you have observed is exactly what makes the phrase so curious. The mockingbird's behavior, which is the diametric opposite of the catbird's, suits the logic of the phrase precisely. Middleton's research, published a number of years ago in the Saturday Review, traces the phrase as far back as the 1938 poker game in Cincinnati and no farther. Any competent linguist specializing in regionalisms would immediately suspect that the phrase originated there. And anyone who speaks normal English in Cincinnati approaches the Nietzschean ideal of "transvaluation of all values" (Umwertung aller Werte).

Also sprach Red Barber.

Gareth Penn
San Rafael, CA

[line width="40%"]Dear Editor:

Uncle Sam's family has grown so numerous, invented so much machinery, and been so hospitable, that now there are not enough jobs to go around, and we are told that THERE NEVER WILL BE. Further, Uncle Sam's presidential Self resists creating new ones.

So, how about introducing a strange new concept into national politics, the idea of simply neighborly sharing - to wit, reduce the present eight hour work day to six hours and thus create even additional jobs to take care of the recreational, parenting, or hobby activities those two new free hours would naturally demand?

If ECPHORIZER computers would whiz into action to come up with convincing statistics, we could present them to our national, state, and local elected officials in our American, grass roots, letterwriting way and perhaps happily start solving the Unemployment Problem.

Dream Girl 

[line width="40%"]Dear Editor:

I have just completed reading Aphrodite Fish's "The Measure Happiness" in your February issue. She is to be commended for venturing into this complex and highly rewarding subject, but, alas, the slippery nature of such studies has allowed the intrusion of error. Although the decay of bliss with distance may be related to cucumber size, her mathematics fail to support her premise. In fact, happiness is 56% lower with the shorter cucumber in Danbury!   

She is, of course, not the first researcher to be undone by a wayward cucumber. The subject has so many ins and outs that long and careful probing is needed to reach the desired conclusion. Should Ms. Fish desire to communicate further with me on the subject, I would be most pleased. In the interest of science, of course.

David Durst
Oakland, CA

[line width="40%"]Dear Editor:

In your February issue (p. 11), Aphrodite Fish finds that with the cucumber in place, H = 1/(O**2). She then goes on to take this to "clearly" indicate infinite happiness.

While such a conclusion might be popular with the unlettered (or, rather, unnumbered) masses, it is wrong. My beginning algebra students know that the above equation states that happiness is "not possible;' one of my calculators says it is "Error;' my other calculator just blinks at me.

Clearly, a cucumber has no business in there. Either that or Aphrodite needs a better model.

A. Nother Fish

Editor's Note: Ms. Fish acknowledges these scholarly criticisms, and begs to point out that cucumberology is still young. Although efforts like hers have caused it to grow enormously, it is not yet a hard science.

[line width="40%"]Dear Editor:

I am moved to write you after reading your "Letters" section of the February issue, wherein the writer describes a way to outwit the automatic toll-taker on the Carquinez bridge.

That letter caused me to give some thought to cheaters and crooks generally, and while at first I deplored the small-time cheater's attitude, I later realized that I, too, would be dishonest-only for me, the price would be maybe a half a million dollars, while his was 10¢...

Which of us is a greater enemy of society-the one who used the bridge for 35¢ instead of 40¢, or the one who helped General Dynamics cheat the DOD out of millions on a supply contract?

Matt Spitzer
Hayward, CA 

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