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The cat’s mother

October 12, 2011

I was working as a volunteer in my local primary school recently (actually it was about six months ago, but I’ve only just remembered it) and one girl shouted across the classroom that another girl  – ‘she’ – had done something annoying, I forget what now. The teacher glared at her and asked icily: ‘Who’s she? The cat’s mother?’

I remember teachers asking that exact same question in those exact same circumstances when I was in junior school four decades ago, so it’s nice to hear that this quaint expression is still extant. A couple of things still puzzle me about it, though. First, although no teacher ever explained the principle behind the question – presumably, you shouldn’t refer to someone by a third person pronoun when that person is actually present – none of us ever had any trouble working out what it meant. You ought to refer to people by name if they’re in the room. Odd that we all managed to understand this, as the expression is not exactly transparent.

Well, maybe it’s easy to work out because it’s fairly obvious that talking about someone in the third person without using their name sounds rude. I can imagine if I was at a meeting, say, and somebody there kept saying ‘he’ to refer to me, refusing to use my name, I’d take umbrage. But here is the second strange thing. Nobody ever asks ‘Who’s he? The cat’s father?’ This little piece of etiquette seems to apply to women only. Which makes me suspect it is quite old, perhaps a legacy from Victorian times, when etiquette demanded that  ladies should be treated with special consideration in social situations.

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