February 1, 2014

The Cat's Tail

One Lithuanian proverb I often hear is, "Kas pakels katinui uodegą, jei ne jis pats." It means, "Who'll lift the cat's tail if not the cat himself." The proverb expresses the Lithuanian contempt for boastfulness.* My family, for example, enforced the idea that vanity is shameful. When someone told me that I was a "pretty little girl," Mom discouraged me from saying, "Thank you" because that response signaled agreement with the observation. Instead, she taught me to provide a deflective answer, like, "You must need glasses."

We most often use the "cat's tail" expression when one of us gives ourselves a compliment. For example, if Mom remarks on her exquisite knitting, she'll add the expression—as a coda—to acknowledge that she shouldn't admire her own work.

Suburban Chicago, Summer 1963. Some people substitute a dog for the proverb's cat, but at our house, it's always a cat. The feline in this photo is our neighbors' Siamese.

*There's also a cultural mistrust of self-confidence; that quality is almost indistinguishable from arrogance.


edutcher said...

Interesting, the Irish wouldn't see it that way.

Or an American.

Especially an American.

Irene said...

Yes, there were some contradictions when it came to assimilation.