Who is the “Tom” in “tomcat,” the name for male cats? Plus, you have a pack of dogs, but a “what” of cats?

Ailurophiles (cat fanciers) will tell you that it makes perfect sense female cats are called queens. “Tomcat,” however, is a little trickier. While we’re on the feline topic, what is the name for a group of cats, and where does the myth of cats’ nine lives originate?

Meow. (What do people in Japan say instead of “meow?” Here’s the answer.)

It turns out that the term for a male cat is associated with a fictional character from long before the cartoon “Tom and Jerry.” In the mid-eighteenth century, a popular children’s book called “The Life and Adventures of a Cat” featured a cat named Tom. “Tomcat” is also slang for a “woman-chaser,” a definition that was first recorded in 1927.

A less common name for the male cat is Gib-cat, which is likely a shortening of the name Gilbert.

Female cats (and often male cats too) are called pusses or pussycats, or queens. There is some debate as to which language this term came from. Dutch, German, Swedish, and Norwegian are all candidates.

The word is also used to refer to a person who is harmless. For example, “Don’t let John’s serious stare intimidate you. He’s really just a pussycat.”

Incidentally, the verb pussyfoot was originally the apropos nickname for a stealthy prohibition agent named W.E. Johnson.

(Cats are one thing, but zedonks and ligers are another. Learn the difference between a zebrula, a zonkey, and a zebrinny, here.)

You may have witnessed a herd of cows, a pack of dogs, a murder of crows, and a covey of partridges, but how often do you see a clowder of cats? Maybe when there is an abundance of catnip.

Since ancient times, cats have inspired a variety of myths and superstitions. One common superstition states that bad luck comes to whoever lets a black cat cross his path. If this superstition develops into a persistent, irrational fear of felines, it is called ailurophobia. The word comes from the Greek ailouros, which means “cat,” and phobos, which means “fear.”

Many cultures share a version of the myth that cats have multiple lives. We often talk about cats having nine lives, while in some Spanish-speaking regions pusses are said to have seven. The myth stems from cats’ natural abilities to dodge life-threatening situations.

What other animal would you like us to investigate? The creature with the most support below will receive its own future blog entry.