Thursday, November 06, 2008

I don't know what "the catbird seat" is.

The other night at pub trivia, one of my teammates said something about being "in the catbird seat," meaning someone was sitting pretty. The phrase struck us all as funny, and we realized that we had no idea what a catbird was, much less what a catbird's seat looked like, or why that might be a good place to be.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says the Gray Catbird is "a secretive, but curious skulker of dense thickets," whose "mew" call "sounds only vaguely catlike." It is widespread through most of the United States and southern Canada.

What, then, is a catbird seat? Well, apparently catbirds build pretty nice nests; nice enough, in fact, that cowbirds regularly lay eggs in them, which catbirds throw out. The Australian bowerbird, also known as the catbird, builds elaborate bowers of rocks or shells for his mate -- though I have a hard time believing the phrase "catbird seat" comes from Australia, as it seems to have been in use in the United States in the 19th century. The OED says its first appearance in print was in a James Thurber short story, "The Catbird Seat," where credit for the phrase goes to baseball announcer Red Barber.

It's still an odd turn of phrase.

Five Random Songs (since I didn't post them yesterday)

"All Cats," Six Organs of Admittance. Electronica from a collection of music that came with an issue of The Believer magazine.

"We Shall Overcome," Bruce Springsteen and the Sessions Band. From the Live in Dublin recording. Bruce's voice is not suited to this song, but it's moving all the same, and the backup harmonies are beautiful.

"The Tony Award Song," Title of Show soundtrack. A hilarious outtake in which one character starts a power ballad about winning a Tony, and another interrupts him to say they're not putting the song on the CD because it's too cheap a joke. Cheap jokes can be funny too.

"Silver Wings," The Knitters. An excellent cover of a Merle Haggard classic.

"My Time After Awhile," Buddy Guy. Classic blues from the master.


SteveHL said...

It's not even remotely relevant to your question, but the Thurber story was filmed in 1959. Somehow the setting was changed to Scotland, although the plot stayed reasonably close to Thurber's. The main character, a typically beleaguered middle-aged Thurber male, was played by Peter Sellers.

Laura Benedict said...

I always used to associate the catbird seat with the rumble seat--two things that were antique even when I came into the world. Like bustles, but not like cassette tapes.