This past Thanksgiving week—
OK, I promise this will be the last post prompted by something that happened at Thanksgiving, mostly because I’m going on vacation after this. Not a real vacation; just a vacation from the blog—a blogcation, if I may. Don’t worry, I’ll be back in the new year. (OK, maybe you should worry. I’ll be back in the new year.)
Anyway, this past Thanksgiving week I went for a sail on my cousin’s new sailboat. And yes, this is the same cousin I mentioned last weekend. He’s a sailor, and he just got a beautiful new boat. I also mentioned that he flew Hornets for the Navy. What I didn’t mention is that he flew with the Blue Angels. In fact, he commanded the Blue Angels. Plus, even though he’s older than I am, he’s better looking than I am and in better shape than I’ve ever been in my life. Unfortunately, he’s a really good guy, so I can’t hate him the way I know I should.
Anyway, as we set out from the slip, I asked about this feature of the boat:
No, not the flag. Behind it. There are two, one in each corner of the stern. This is my daughter sitting in the one on the port side.
Keep in mind that she’s seven years old and 4 feet, 3 inches tall. That’s my cousin on the left, and her head is about even with his. What you can’t see is that I’m in the starboard seat, enjoying a great view, well above everything.
Anyway, I asked my cousin what the seat was called. He said, “That’s the catbird seat.” The rest of us on the boat—another cousin, his girlfriend, and my wife and daughter—being the type of people we are, all said, practically in unison, “Is that where the phrase comes from?
No, It’s Not.
Yes, I know. It’s actually pretty easy to find the origin of the phrase, as well as its derivation, except everyone is wrong about that second one.
So Tell Us About the Second One
No, I’m going to start with the first one.
Hey, you don’t have to read this.
Anyway, the phrase originated in the American South. Sportscaster Red Barber heard it while playing a poker game in Cincinnati in the 1930s. Barber was known for his folksy colloquialisms, and he used “in the catbird seat” frequently on the air.
What Does it Mean, Anyway?
Oh, crap. Did I forget to mention that? See, I’m not really sure what it means. I’m used to hearing it used to mean someone is living a life of ease, as in the (sort of) quote from Raising Arizona that forms the title of this post. But dictionaries tend to define it as “being in a position of power or advantage.”
Forget Dictionaries. What Did Red Barber Mean When He Used It?
Well, the Ol’ Redead retired when I was but a little tyke, and I don’t think I ever heard him call a game. Fortunately, we have James Thurber. More specifically, we have a James Thurber short story called … wait for it … “In the Catbird Seat.” It was first published in The New Yorker and collected in A Thurber Carnival, although I have it in a collection called Thurber on Crime. I quote:
She had, for almost two years now, baited him. In the halls, in the elevator, even in his own office, into which she romped now and then like a circus horse, she was constantly shouting these silly questions at him. “Are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch? Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you hollering down the rain barrel? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?”
It was Joey Hart, one of Mr. Martin’s two assistants, who had explained what the gibberish meant. “She must be a Dodger fan,” he had said. “Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions — picked ’em up down South.” Joey had gone on to explain one or two. “Tearing up the pea patch” meant going on a rampage; “sitting in the catbird seat” meant sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.
A batter with three balls and no strikes on him is certainly in a position of power or advantage, and baseball players in 1942 (when the story was written) certainly didn’t live a life of ease, so I have to go with the dictionaries on this one.
Can We Do the Second One Now?
OK, sure. Google—and despite the product placement deals on several recent TV dramas, I have yet to hear “Bing” used as a verb—Google “catbird seat” and you’ll find 116,000 sources that will tell you the phrase came about because catbirds sit at the very tops of trees. OK, I guess the very top of a tall tree is a position of power of advantage. Sadly, though, catbirds don’t sit there.
Says the one person I know who knows more about birds, animals, plants, and general nature stuff than anyone else on the planet: my wife. Also her sister, who is a bird aficionado as well. They both tell me that catbirds tend to hide among the branches in the middle of trees.
Then there’s this, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (the emphasis is mine):
Catbirds are secretive but energetic, hopping and fluttering from branch to branch through tangles of vegetation. Singing males sit atop shrubs and small trees. Catbirds are reluctant to fly across open areas, preferring quick, low flights over vegetation.
Look for Gray Catbirds in dense tangles of shrubs, small trees, and vines, along forest edges, streamside thickets, old fields, and fencerows.
Gee, Atop a Shrub Is Hardly a Position of Power or Advantage
It seems pretty clear to me that catbirds don’t actually sit in the catbird seat. So where did the saying come from?
I found one source who says that people mixed up the gray catbird and the northern mockingbird. Catbirds are related to mockingbirds—that’s why they can sound like cats—and that’s why they’re called “catbirds.” And mockingbirds do, indeed, perch at the tops of tall trees.
Here’s the thing, though. I don’t think northern mockingbirds look very much like gray catbirds.
(By the way, Mimus polyglottos has to be the best scientific name for a bird since Acceleratti incredibilus.)
So We’re Back to Square One?
You would be, if you didn’t have me to rely on. Check this out:
Again, according to the ornithologists at Cornell:
The Townsend’s Solitaire of the West…acts very differently from a catbird, sitting on high, exposed perches.
So there we have it. Townsend’s solitaires perch in positions of power or advantage on high, exposed perches. They look a lot like catbirds, so people thought they were catbirds and started describing a position of power or advantage as a “catbird seat.”
You Solved the Mystery! You’re Incredible!
Yes, I know. I hope you won’t miss me too much over the next couple of weeks.
I also hope that whatever holidays you choose to celebrate are wonderful for you.