Etymology
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meow (n.)

representation of cat sound, 1842, earlier miaow, miau, meaw (1630s). Of imitative origin, compare French miaou, German miauen, Persian maw, Japanese nya nya, Arabic nau-nau, and Joyce's mrkgnao. In Chinese, miau means "cat." As a verb in English by 1630s, meaw, also meawle. Compare Old French miauer "to meow, caterwaul." Related: Meowed; meowing.

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mew (v.)

"make a sound like a cat," early 14c., mewen, of imitative origin (compare German miauen, French miauler, Italian miagolare, Spanish maullar, and see meow). Sometimes also used of seagulls. Related: Mewed; mewing. As a noun from 1590s.

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mow (v.)

Old English mawan "to cut (grass, etc.) with a scythe or other sharp instrument" (class VII strong verb; past tense meow, past participle mawen), from Proto-Germanic *mæanan (source also of Middle Low German maeyen, Dutch maaien, Old High German maen, German mähen "to mow," Old English mæd "meadow"), from PIE root *me- (4) "to cut down grass or grain." Related: Mowed; mown; mowing.

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bee's knees (n.)
1923, a survivor of a fad around this year for slang terms denoting "excellence" and based on animal anatomy. Also existed in the more ribald form bee's nuts. Other versions that lasted through the century are cat's whiskers (1923), cat's pajamas, cat's meow. More obscure examples are canary's tusks, cat's nuts and flea's eyebrows. The fad still had a heartbeat in Britain at the end of the century, as attested by the appearance of dog's bollocks in 1989. Bee's knee was used as far back as 1797 for "something insignificant."
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cat (n.)

Old English catt (c. 700) "domestic cat," from West Germanic (c. 400-450), from Proto-Germanic *kattuz (source also of Old Frisian katte, Old Norse köttr, Dutch kat, Old High German kazza, German Katze), from Late Latin cattus.

The near-universal European word now, it appeared in Europe as Latin catta (Martial, c. 75 C.E.), Byzantine Greek katta (c. 350) and was in general use on the continent by c. 700, replacing Latin feles. Probably ultimately Afro-Asiatic (compare Nubian kadis, Berber kadiska, both meaning "cat"). Arabic qitt "tomcat" may be from the same source. Cats were domestic in Egypt from c. 2000 B.C.E., but not a familiar household animal to classical Greeks and Romans. The nine lives have been proverbial at least since 1560s.

The Late Latin word also is the source of Old Irish and Gaelic cat, Welsh kath, Breton kaz, Italian gatto, Spanish gato, French chat (12c.). Independent, but ultimately from the same source are words in the Slavic group: Old Church Slavonic kotuka, kotel'a, Bulgarian kotka, Russian koška, Polish kot, along with Lithuanian katė and non-Indo-European Finnish katti, which is from Lithuanian.

Extended to lions, tigers, etc. c. 1600. As a term of contempt for a woman, from early 13c. Slang sense of "prostitute" is from at least c. 1400. Slang sense of "fellow, guy," is from 1920, originally in African-American vernacular; narrower sense of "jazz enthusiast" is recorded from 1931.

Cat's paw (1769, but cat's foot in the same sense, 1590s) refers to the old folk tale in which the monkey tricks the cat into pawing chestnuts from a fire; the monkey gets the roasted nuts, the cat gets a burnt paw. Cat burglar is from 1907, so called for stealth. Cat-witted "small-minded, obstinate, and spiteful" (1670s) deserved to survive. For Cat's meow, cat's pajamas, see bee's knees. For let the cat out of the bag, see bag (n.).

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