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shameless pleading

Katie bar the door!

And your little dog, too.

Dear WD: My mother would say “It’s Katie bar the door!” to describe someone’s getting very angry. A man at the office suggested that pubs’ doors were barred at closing time (or would you bar it to let no troublemakers in or out?). Any information on this one would be fun. — Anne Ruthven, Bandera, Texas.

I hope you have a flexible definition of “fun,” because, after searching through a dozen reference books, I have come up with only a sketchy answer to your question. I can tell you that “Katie bar the door” is a colloquial expression meaning “look out” or “get ready for trouble,” and that it is heard primarily in the Southern United States. Beyond that, things get very murky. I even searched the Internet for an answer, but all I discovered about “Katie bar the door” on the Net is that the phrase may or may not — opinions vary — occur in the lyrics to an old REM song.

Eventually, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I realized that the best answer I was likely to find was in my own back yard all along. My parents, in their Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, report similar difficulty in tracing “Katie bar the door.” In their case however, a helpful reader came to the rescue and noted that the phrase most probably came from an old English folk song. In the song, Katie and her husband are arguing, and somehow agree that the next one to speak will lose the argument. Since neither will speak to suggest barring the door at bedtime, robbers break in during the night and commit various outrages against the pair. The end of the song apparently involves the husband crying out at last and repelling the miscreants, thereby losing the argument with his wife. Since I don’t have the actual lyrics to the song, I can only presume that the phrase “Katie bar the door” occurs as a refrain or concluding stanza, but the accepted meaning of the phrase certainly fits the story conveyed in the song.

3 comments to Katie bar the door!

  • Barry Wood

    Per SongMeanings, this phrase arose in connection with the murder of James I, King of Scotland, February 21, 1437 at Blackfiars Monastery outside of Perth. James I had irritated much of Parliament with a plan to raise taxes. At the time of the visit to Perth, Sir Robert Stewart, the chamberlain of the royal household, removed the bar from the door to the king’s chamber in order to facilitate entry by his confederates. Catherine Douglas, lady in waiting to the queen, placed her arm where the door bar had been. Her arm was not strong enough to fend off the attackers, let by Robert Graham. They gained entry and ultimately found the king hiding beneath the floor in a sewer. He would have escaped except that the exit had recently been boarded up to minimize the loss of tennis balls. Thus ended the reign of the most musically accomplished king Scotland has ever known. Three months later, Graham, Stewart and Stewart’s grandfather Walter of Atholl were “gruesomely executed.” See the Wiki article on James I.

  • Eddie

    katyBar was the name of a device sold in the 20′s and 30′s. It was used to keep intruders from busting through an outside door. It was made up of three parts. A flush fitting brass floor base, a brass door plate and a wooden bar approximately three feet long with brass ends that fit at a 45 degree angle. To bar the door shut you simply fit the katybar into the brass between the door and the floor. Once the door is barred from the inside, it would be next to impossible to open the door from the outside.

    I saw one in an classic old movie, the name KatyBar was stamped into the floorplate. I don’t remember which movies it was.

  • admin

    That kind of gizmo is still often found in New York City apartments, esp in “dicier” neighborhoods. The bar on ours was tempered steel; wood wouldn’t have lasted long. The door itself was heavy steel on both sides, with extra plates around the lock.

    And this was in a really nice UWS apt 1/2 block from Central Park that now rents for ~$5000/mo.

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