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.

1 comment on this post.
  1. 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.

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