Formed of herd + cat, perhaps in reference to domesticated cats’ solitary nature. Possibly from the opening scene of Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979). Shepherds are discussing sheep and the topic strays to cats: "Can you imagine a herds of cats waiting to be sheared? Meow! Meow! Woo hoo hoo." Earliest usage unknown, but the idiom is attested from the 1980s.
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- (idiomatic, in similes) To attempt to control the uncontrollable.
- Managing volunteers from fourteen different organizations is like herding cats.
- 1983, Paul Henry Mussen, Handbook of Child Psychology, volume 4, page viii:
- Finally, you present this vision and your goals to the authors; after that it’s like herding cats. Authors have their own perspectives on their topics, their own notions about what constitutes significant issues and adequate coverage
- 1987, Lance Brilliantine, “Dual color copying”, in Office Administration and Automation, page 20:
- Trying to predict the future of office automation is like trying to herd cats. Things go in so many directions, you end up with a fist full of air.
- 2004, Kent Conrad, “Tributes to Thomas A. Daschle”, in Proceedings in the Senate (US Senate):
- The job of leader has often been compared to herding cats. It is not easy, but Senator DASCHLE did an outstanding job.
- 2021 January 13, Paul Clifton, “Delivering a basis for rail changes”, in RAIL. issue 922, page 32:
- It must feel like herding cats, with 20-or-so members and with the big five franchise owning groups.
- Used other than figuratively or idiomatically: see herd, cat.
- 1924, Daniel Wolford La Rue, The Child’s Mind and the Common Branches, →OCLC, page 36:
- It would be hard teaching a shepherd dog to herd cats, or even to herd sheep, before he leaves off his puppy ways and shows himself ready to become a good shepherd.