Monday, March 15, 2010

Pigs' Skins and Cats' Guts

No, Virginia, footballs are not really made from the skins of pigs, and violin strings are not made from the intestines of actual cats.  So how did the words pigskin and catgut originate?

In the case of pigskin, sometime around the 8th century, the Saxons invented a game of primitive football, in which rowdy mobs tried to kick a ball-like object from their end of town to their opponents’ territory.  It may not seem very sporting of them, but the ball-like object they used was the severed head of a defeated Viking invader.  Later, when Vikings became less numerous (you can see why), the avid athletes began to use animal bladders, sealed and inflated. Sometimes they were pig bladders but more often those of cows and sheep.     

In the mid-19th century, thanks to Charles Goodyear, who invented vulcanized rubber, the bladders and Viking heads were replaced with rubber balls, usually covered with animal hides to make them more durable.  Although the hide was usually cow leather, the old “pigskin” designation was resurrected by an imaginative sports writer around the turn of the century.  And it stuck.

Catgut is the name given to a cord usually made from the intestines of sheep or goats.  It is sometimes used to make strings for some musical instruments.  While the innards of horses, mules, pigs, and donkeys are also sometimes used, the cord has never been made from cats. 

Theories abound about the origin of the word. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests it’s a reference to “caterwauling” by an inept string player.  Others think it may be a contraction of “cattle gut” or a confusion of the word kit, meaning a small fiddle, with kitten. 
Our old friend, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, turned to Mother Goose, who always has a few choice words about various critters—cows, horses, lambs, blackbirds, and spiders—as well as pigs and cats.

    Tom, Tom, the running back,
    Stole the pigskin and went on attack.
    As he picked up yardage down the field,
    The pigskin just sat back and squealed.

    Hey diddle, diddle,
    The cat and the fiddle—
    Now here’s the scuttlebutt.
    A Perlman cadenza
    Gives a cat influenza

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