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<   No. 2153   2008-12-18   >

Comic #2153

1 Ishmael: The rat just vanished! Into thin air!
1 Loren: It must be flitting through time.
2 Loren: Now your cat has vanished.
2 Ishmael: Moby Tom!
3 Loren: Chasing the rat through time, no doubt.
4 Ishmael: But he'd have to be some sort of... quantum Cheshire Cat to do that!
4 Loren: Curiouser...

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Cheshire is a county in north-west England renowned mostly for dairy farming and a type of cheese.

I should make sure to visit it when I travel to England in future.

2021-03-14 Rerun commentary: You may not be aware of this (I wasn't!), but Lewis Carroll did not invent the Cheshire Cat out of whole cloth.

The phrase "grins like a Cheshire cat" first appears in print in Francis Grose's A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Second, Corrected and Enlarged Edition (1788). As the title suggests, this is a dictionary, which records usage, so the phrase must have been in moderately common spoken usage at the time.

Unfortunately, there are no records of how the phrase evolved into being. There are many theories: One being that because Cheshire is renowned as dairy farming country, a cat in Cheshire would naturally be inclined to grin at its fortune of being surrounded by delicious dairy products. Another theory is that an influential family in Cheshire had a lion rampant as its family crest, and commissioned a sign painter to paint such a lion on the signboards of various inns in the county. The painter apparently had little experience with lions or sign painting, and the results looked more like cats, which then became infamous and entered the local language. A third theory claims that cheese in Cheshire was originally sold moulded into the shape of cats, and people would slice cheese from the tail end, thus ensuring the grin was the last part that remained. None of these theories are widely accepted.

There are also theories about how Lewis Carroll was inspired to use a "Cheshire cat" as a character. One claims that he was inspired by a 16th century carving of a grinning cat in St Wilfrid's Church, Grappenhall, Cheshire. This carving handily predates the recorded usage of the term in Grose's dictionary, so perhaps it's possible that people were referring to grinning Cheshire cats as much as 200 years earlier.

But not to be outdone in the theorising stakes, other scholars variously claim Carroll was inspired by cat carvings which can be seen in:

It seems basically that at this stage all that is left of our knowledge of where the phrase "Cheshire cat"—and where Lewis Carroll's inspiration—came from is an alarming grin.

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