Cat got your tongue? A teasing question posed by adults to shy children. The child inevitably remains dumb, hoping someone will save him from this puzzling person who is making no sense. There is no cat. The boy’s tongue is where it belongs, in his mouth.
Why do we do this– put small children at a disadvantage with our nonsensical jibes? Perhaps it’s related to the Santa Clause game in which we tell kids that a jolly gentleman delivers a gift to every child on earth at Christmas– all on the same night. We prop up the lie with helpers, reindeer and even a wife, the whole wrapped in sleigh-bells, hot cocoa and twinkling lights. We adults tell the story; the children listen, agape. We smile; they sleep, believing our tales. That is, until the child arrives at an age when he begins to trusts his reason more than the adults around him.
By then he has learned that the question, ‘Cat got your tongue?’ has nothing to do with cats or tongues but everything to do with communication. People—adults and kids alike—are supposed to talk to one another. When we meet, we’re expected to shake hands, give kisses, say, ‘How are you’. If we meet royalty we must bow or curtsy; if we meet the maid we must refrain from curtsying. Each is put in his or her own place. We must make eye contact, or avoid making eye contact. We must shake hands, but which one is the clean one? We must kiss the left cheek first; no the right one. It is all learned from the bottom up, from childhood to adulthood: the how and when to speak to others, and what to believe of the words they offer in return.
“It’s a pleasure.”
“Aren’t you David’s….girlfriend?”
"Well, well, well. What have we here?”
Language is at the heart of all communication. We judge and are judged by it. The child learns something of this the first time he is asked, ‘Cat got your tongue?’