Chances are you’ve been in this kind of gut-wrenching situation: having to take the blame for something bad that simply wasn’t your fault. This all-too-familiar feeling has its very own colourful expression in Cantonese: sik6 sei2 maau1 (食死貓), literally “eating a dead cat.”
Somebody “eats a dead cat” when they have been declared responsible for something that has gone wrong. They were not involved with the incident, nor were they the person who is supposed to take the blame. In other words, they’re a scapegoat – and in Cantonese, scapegoats eat dead cats.
This turn of phrase often comes up in workplace conversations, but it can apply to all kinds of situations. A child is blamed for an action their sibling actually carried out; a suspect is wrongly convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. Given how frequently this expression is used in Cantonese, it might be a surprise that it has a pretty sinister origin.
It all began with China’s history of consuming domestic cats. It is said that, in the past, certain restaurants that offered cats on the menu would place live felines inside a cage prior to them being served to diners. Trapped in such horrific conditions, some cats would die before they were selected to be killed and cooked, which would given them a less desired texture and flavour.
People familiar with the animal’s taste who end up being served these dead cats would figure out that they had been given subpar meats pretty quickly. This gave rise to the expression “eating a dead cat,” which originally referred to being bamboozled.
The tale is an urban legend of sorts, as there are no reports on when and where incidents of this kind happened. And it’s worth saying that cat-eating is no longer common practice in China. The expression, however, has stuck around and in modern Cantonese evolved into its current meaning.
“Eating a dead cat” is closely linked to – though shouldn’t be confused with – another common expression, “carrying the wok.” This describes being involved in something bad with a group of other individuals, and when accountability is called into question, just one person is deemed responsible for it all and hence has to “carry the wok.” Think of it as drawing the short stick in an unsavoury situation.
Examples of this in today’s Hong Kong? When senior government officials resign over mistake committed by juniors on their team, they are effectively “carrying the wok.” When it comes to whether people are “eating a dead cat”, however, sometimes it is much harder to tell who is really to blame.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.