Walk back the cat


Dear Word Detective: What is known about the history or origin of the statement “that cat cannot be walked back”? — James.

That’s an interesting question. When I say that, I usually mean either that it interests me personally (and I plan to drag the rest of you along for the ride), or that I think the answer is neat, cool, or surprising enough to actually interest most readers. In this case, however, I can confidently assert that this question is objectively interesting, because at least half the internet seems to be looking for the answer. (That’s an exaggeration, of course. Ninety percent of the people on the internet are spending all day every day futzing with their Facebook pages.)

The proximate cause for the sudden uptick in interest in cats walking backwards can be found in a recent article, widely excerpted online, by the conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan. Noting that US corporate leaders “championed investing in China and trade with China” but now find China’s economic power threatening, he declares, “Sorry, but that cat cannot be walked back.”

Buchanan was apparently using the term “to walk back the cat” to mean “to reverse” or “to undo” something already done, what might also be called “putting the genie back in the bottle” or, perhaps more evocative of the impossibility involved, “putting the toothpaste back in the tube.” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd used the phrase in the same sense earlier this year, as did Bonnie Goldstein in Slate last year (“Now Cornyn wants the attorney general nominee to walk back the cat by agreeing to not prosecute”).

This “undo” or “take it back” sense of “to walk back the cat” seems to be gaining currency lately, but the phrase originally had a different, more intriguing meaning that deserves to be preserved. “To walk back the cat” comes from the world of spooks, spy masters and double agents explored by writers such as the great John LeCarre. The late William Safire, a Washington insider with excellent sources in the intelligence community, explained the term in his New York Times column back in 2002: “Intelligence analysts have a technique to reveal a foreign government’s internal dissension called ‘walking back the cat.’ They apply what they now know as fact against what their agents said to expect. In that way, walkers-back learn who ‘disinformed’ or whose mistake may reveal a split in a seemingly monolithic hierarchy.”

So “to walk back the cat” in this original sense means to conduct a detailed review and analysis of who said what to whom in light of subsequent events to glean some useful knowledge about whom to trust and, perhaps, a bit about how an opponent works. A slightly different, but clearly related, use of the phrase is to mean “to trace the development of a crisis backwards in order to determine responsibility or to identify errors made or warnings missed.”

If you’ve ever watched a cat wander around a large house or even a small yard, you’ll probably instantly understand the logic behind “walk back the cat.” Cats rarely seem to march from one place to another with a clear purpose in mind, as dogs often do. A cat forges its own labyrinthine path, often doubling back on its route and making what seems like a thousand little side trips in the course of a short stroll. A graphic representation of the typical cat’s journey of just a few minutes’ duration would resemble nothing so much as a tangle of string, but it might provide some interesting glimpses into the cat’s psyche. (OK, probably not, but bear with me.)

So “walking back the cat” is a perfect metaphor for retracing the complex development of an event and examining the “run up” to it for useful insights. The use of “walk back the cat” to simply mean “undo” or “repair” thus mangles a compelling metaphor and misses the point, since the occurrence of the event is itself an important data point in such an investigation. After all, as any fortune-teller will tell you, you can’t read tea leaves until you’ve emptied the cup.

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