“To Grin Like a Cheshire Cat Chewing Green Gravel”
J.C. Bridge no. 342, p.125
Bridge’s version of this proverb is the one that I always knew, quite simply stating “To grin like a Cheshire cat.” Bridge adds that variants of the proverb regarding the familiar grinning cat involved it chewing gravel or green gravel, which is the version that I’ve included in the header, merely for its novelty value, although Bridge is dubious regarding the authenticity of either variant.
Lewis Carroll (1832 – 1898), who lived in Daresbury in east Cheshire, was responsible for the popularity of this particular proverb, and it was made famous by John Tenniel’s illustrations in Carroll’s 1865 book Alice in Wonderland. Carroll, however, did not invent the grinning Cheshire cat proverb.
During my short time looking at proverbs, I have learned that although their meanings sometimes survive, in many other cases the origins of the proverbs are long-lost in the quagmire of oral history, itself a tale of Chinese whispers. Proverbs fascinate people not merely because they are striking, but because they are multi-layered. As well as meaning, they have history, and as well as history, they capture a tone of the oral vernacular past that has been largely lost. Carroll’s entertaining appropriation of the Cheshire cat in 1865 presumably had very little to do with the proverb itself, but acquired an energy and life all of its own. As time passes and Alice in Wonderland fades from the reading lists of current and future generations, Carroll’s reinvention of the Cheshire cat may also fade, much like the cat itself, which slowly vanishes to leave behind nothing but the grin itself. That would be a shame.
Bridge is rather severe about the proverb. He says that it is must be made clear that it is not an old saying “and no old writer or old collection of Proverb gives it” (Bridge’s italics). He says that the oldest example is in the works of Peter Pindar dating to c.1794/1801: “Lo! like a Cheshire cat our court will grin.” He points out that it is not “and never has been” a very common saying in the Cheshire county. Finally, he says that to date (and his date was 1917) none of the numerous attempts to elucidate it had been successful.
Bridge devotes another two and a half pages to this lack of success. He begins with the unsubstantiated story of an unskilled sign-painter whose attempt to depict a lion-rampant looked more like a grinning cat, and the rest runs along similar lines. It is a highly entertaining discourse between different writers on the possible origins of the proverb, but none of it is, as Bridge points out, verifiable or even plausible. I particularly like the idea posed in 1850 that some Cheshire cheeses were sold in the form of a cat with bristles inserted to represent whiskers. An indignant Bridge comments “I feel sure that the writer was mistaken. Good Cheshire Cheese could not be made, and certainly never was made in the shape of Cats, or it would have ceased to be high class and to command the market.” In the end Bridge thinks that a theory put forward by one Egerton Leigh is most likely to represent the reality: “one need not go far to account for a Cheshire cat grinning. A cat’s paradise must naturally be placed in a County like Cheshire, flowing with milk.”
Carroll’s imaginative revival of the proverb has been incorporated into many popular contexts. My family lived in Nantwich for a couple of years, and there was a very famous pub there called The Cheshire Cat, a half-timbered building that was originally built in the 17th Century. It had gone out of business when I was last there a few years ago, but there’s a website that indicates that it is back up and running, which is good news.
I was amused to see that the concept of the Cheshire cat has infiltrated itself into scientific lore. Wikipedia has a list of examples, and a nice one from quantum mechanics has a phenomenon named “The Cheshire Cat,” in which a particle and its property behave as if they are separated. Just as much fun, although infinitely less sophisticated, is the heat-sensitive mug that I found on Amazon, where the John Tenniel illustration of the cat vanishes as the mug warms through, leaving just the grin behind.
For more about J.C. Bridge and this Cheshire Proverbs series, see Cheshire Proverbs 1.
Carroll, L. 1865. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Wikipedia: Cheshire Cat