In any language, idioms can be difficult. Sometimes, you need to know a lot of cultural backstory — the meaning behind the words — to understand these sayings. And using them the right way can cause problems for English learners.
Our weekly program is about the words, expressions and idioms we use in American English. Even people who grew up in the United States speaking English have problems with some of these idioms.
On another Words and Their Stories , we told how the idiom “blood is thicker than water” is misunderstood. The word curious means to want to know things you don’t know; to investigate. Okay, so now, let’s hear an example of a nosy person asking prying questions by putting their nose where it does not belong.
The whole idiom goes like this: “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.” So, we use the first half of the saying as a warning: Be careful of the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation! But the second part — “satisfaction brought it back” — shows that the risk might be worth it.
In the end, the way most Americans use the idiom is as a warning and they simply say “curiosity killed the cat.” Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English.
What does the expression Curiosity killed the cat mean?
phrase. You say ‘ Curiosity killed the cat’ in order to tell someone that they should not try to find out about something which does not concern them.
What is Curiosity killed the cat an example of?
“Curiosity killed the cat” is an idiom we use to warn people. Being curious can get you into trouble. We often use this expression when others ask prying questions. People asking such questions are trying to find out something that is none of their business.
“Curiosity killed the cat” is a proverb used to warn of the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation. It also implies that being curious can sometimes lead to danger or misfortune. The original form of the proverb, now little used, was “Care killed the cat“. In this instance, “care” was defined as “worry” or “sorrow for others.”
Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care ‘ll kill a cat, up-tails all, and a louse for the hangman. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer included this definition in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable :
 An early printed reference to the actual phrase “Curiosity killed the cat” is in James Allan Mair’s 1873 compendium A handbook of proverbs: English, Scottish, Irish, American, Shakesperean, and scriptural; and family mottoes , where it is listed as an Irish proverb on page 34. In the 1902 edition of Proverbs: Maxims and Phrases , by John Hendricks Bechtel, the phrase “Curiosity killed the cat” is the lone entry under the topic “Curiosity” on page 100. Curiosity can do more things than kill a cat; and if emotions, well recognized as feminine, are inimical to feline life, then jealousy would soon leave the whole world catless.
Four Departments of New York City Government Summoned to Rescue Feline. On the fifth floor of the apartment house at 203 West 130th street lives Miss Mable Godfrey. When she came to the house about seven months ago she brought Blackie, a cat of several years’ experience of life.
Last Tuesday afternoon when Miss Godfrey was out Blackie skipped into the grate fireplace in a rear room. Blackie there remained, perched on the top of the screen separating the apartment flue from the main chimney, crying for assistance. On Wednesday the cat, curiosity unsatisfied, tried to climb higherand fell to the first floor.
His cries could still be heard by Miss Godfrey; who, to effect Blackie’s rescue, communicated with the following departments: Thursday morning, just before noon, a plumber opened the rear wall back of the chimney. Despite these earlier appearances, the proverb has been wrongly attributed to Eugene O’Neill , who included the variation, “Curiosity killed a cat!”
Although the original version was used to warn of the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation, the addition of the rejoinder indicates that the risk would lead to resurrection because of the satisfaction felt after finding out. The resurrection element may be a reference to the “multiple lives” of a cat. On 23 December 1912, the earliest known printed reference to this variation of the proverb is found in The Titusville Herald newspaper (page 6): 
We are told:
“Curiosity killed the cat,
But satisfaction brought it back.” “Prices will sell Groceries, but it is always final-
ity that brings the buyer back.”
Everyone knows that, despite its supposed nine lives, curiosity killed the cat. Well, not quite. The ‘killed the cat‘ proverb originated as ‘care killed the cat‘. By ‘care’ the coiner of the expression meant ‘worry/sorrow’ rather than our more usual contemporary ‘look after/provide for’ meaning.
” Helter skelter , hang sorrow, care’ll kill
a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.” The proverbial expression ‘curiosity killed the cat‘, which is usually used when attempting to stop someone asking unwanted questions, is much more recent.
Saint Augustine wrote in Confessions , AD 397, that, in the aeons before creating heaven and earth, God “fashioned hell for the inquisitive”. That bad opinion, and the fact that cats are notoriously inquisitive, led to the source of their demise being changed from ‘care’ to ‘curiosity‘.
The earliest printed reference to the original proverb appears in the 1598 play,The play was first performed by Shakespeare’s playing company, Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Shakespeare used a similar quote in his circa 1599 play,The proverb remained the same until at least 1898. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer included this definition in his