Monday, 14 December 2015

Gib, Gyb, or Gibbe: An Old Word for Cat

Gib or Gibbe is an old term for a cat, which was familiar to many medieval people and those in the following centuries, including Shakespeare.

“I am as melancholy as a gib cat or a lugged bear.” Shakespeare: 1 Henry IV., i. 2.

The name Gib is a contraction of the name “Gilbert” and used in a similar way that Tom cat is today. This name isn’t just restricted to the UK, but used in a slightly different form in France. The French equivalent was Tilbert or Tybalt, with the name ‘Tibbs’ being the equivalent of Gib. Indeed, Chaucer mentions both words for a cat in his Romance of the Rose.

A Digression
Interestingly, Tibby and Tibbles are sometimes still used as cat names, and this isn’t a million miles from Tiddles (could it be as a result of mishearing Tibbles?). However, a quick internet search reveals that Tiddles seems to be a derivative of an old English word ‘Tid’. This word has two meaning, of which one is a small piece, and from this we also get the word tid-bit, meaning a morsel. The other meaning is to fondle or indulge, which I guess in the context of cats makes a lot more sense.

Tiddles and Lord Nelson
There is also an urban myth attached to Lord Horatio Nelson and a cat called Tiddles. There is a lovely story that Lord Nelson went into the Battle of Trafalgar accompanied by a brave companion called Tiddles. This tale gained wide and popular credence, only to be debunked in 2005 when the widow of the perpetrator came forward with the truth about her late husband's deception.

Her husband, Guy Evans, a National Trust employee, started the myth around 1990 when he falsified footnotes to a historic document and then wrote about his discovery in the Nelson Society Journal. She came forward in 2005 to expose the fraud, after the story was mentioned by Stephen Fry on the BBC’s QI program.  

Back to Gib or Gibbe Cats
Tom cats are still widely talked about, but the term Gib has largely fallen into disuse, however this wasn’t always the case. Dr. Johnson (a great cat lover himself) remarks that “Gibbe means an old cat – I know not why.” This is interesting as a Tom cat is generally an entire (not castrated) male, whereas Gib implies old age – so perhaps we just don’t feel the need for a word describing older animals.

However, another doctor, this time Dr. Percy reports that in Northamptonshire the term means a he-cat (or male cat) which is also referred to as a ram-cat (implying they are not desexed) or in Shropshire a tup-cat (similar meaning.) However, numerous dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster give the definition of Gib as meaning neutered or castrated, which is all very confusing.

Phillip Sparrow
Another mention of Gib the cat comes in the 15th century poem, The Book of Phillip Sparrow by John Skelton.
To call Phylyp agayne,
Whom Gyb our cat hath slayne.

Gib, I saye, our cat,
Worrowyd her on that
Which I loved best:

This poem tells the story of the loss of a pet sparrow, murdered by a cat.. called Gib.

So is the name Gib or Gilbert creeping up the list of names to call your next cat…or perhaps Tiddles? 

1 comment:

  1. Loved this post! And love your pictures. They are too funny.


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