Let's stop skinning cats


Idioms are interesting. They’re phrases that have a functional meaning that is independent of their literal meaning. In English, we have idioms like “beating around the bush,” which means to avoid saying what you really mean because it’s uncomfortable [1].

When I was teaching a classroom of first- and second-generation Americans, we explicitly taught idioms so that students would understand the form if not remember examples when reading or speaking with others. I had an illustrated poster on the wall with some common US idioms.

Someone could certainly go on a crusade to rid a language of idioms. “Why say something purposely incorrect when you really mean something else?” they could argue. I’m not going to go that far; I think learning of idioms in other languages in kind of neat. That said, there is one English idiom that I would like to remove:

There is more than one way to skin a cat.

If you are unfamiliar, the idiom means that there are multiple ways to complete a particular task. Since that is an axiom of sorts in programming, I see the idiom used relatively frequently.

Where it differs from an idiom like “barking up the wrong tree,” is that the literal meaning of “skinning a cat” is so odd. Sure, you can skin a cat. But who does that?

I am not very old, nor have I had a vast set of life experiences. But I have never once needed to, seen, or heard of anyone skinning a cat. I don’t know of any uses for cat fur, so skinning one seems unnecessary. Also, many people like cats and a phrase that involves removing their skin is a little insensitive.

I propose replacing this idiom with another:

There is more than one way to bake a cake.

This works on multiple levels. One, cakes are fun. Two, most people have heard of baking cakes and may have baked one themselves. And three, it doesn’t involve skinning a beloved animal. And four, there is more than one way to make a cake!

At the end of the day, I don’t care all that much. But I have started using “there is more than one way to bake a cake” in personal and professional conversations, and I haven’t (to my knowledge) been misunderstood. So why not? Language is what we make of it, so let’s make English a little more fun.

Happy baking!


Footnotes

  1. I’ve made my way to this website on a number of occasions, and I think it’s neat: https://www.ef.com/ca/english-resources/english-idioms/ ↩︎

Exodus 12:39 (SDG)

About

My name is Sean McPherson (SeanMcP), and I am a software engineer based in Pittsburgh, PA. Here I write articles about programming for developers of all levels.