T. S. Eliot? Ogden Nash? Kate Upson Clark? William Lyon Phelps? O. M. Gregor? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Some pets are constantly signaling a desire to enter or leave a domicile. Here are two pertinent expressions:
- A cat is always on the wrong side of a door.
- A door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of.
This notion has been attributed to the poets T. S. Eliot and Ogden Nash. Would you please help me to find citations and precise phrasings?
Quote Investigator: This saying can be phrased in many ways; thus, it is difficult to trace. The expression has been applied to individual animals and to classes of animals. The earliest match located by QI appeared in the “Manchester Weekly Times” of England in 1898 within an article about pets owned by royalty. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
Cats cannot be picked up and carried from pillar to post, while dog’s rather enjoy change of scene. In fact, the pet dog is always on the wrong side of the door, and never happy unless he is either going out or coming in.
The journalist who wrote the text above was unidentified, and QI conjectures that he or she was repeating a remark that was already in circulation.
A 1939 poem by T. S. Eliot about a cat includes an instance of this statement. Ogden Nash included instances in two different poems in 1941 and 1953. Details for these citations are given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1907 “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York printed a story by Kate Upson Clark about a family with a pet cat named Satina who gave birth to a set of kittens. One family member wished to keep two of the kittens, but others disagreed: 2
“One is enough,” they said. “Think of having three cats always under foot—three cats always on the wrong side of the door.”
In 1911 “The Boston Globe” of Massachusetts used the saying while describing a contrarian politician: 3
In debate the senate has few equals to Mr Bailey, but unfortunately the gifted Texan seems to prefer to play the part of the cat who is always on the wrong side of the door.
In 1929 “The Boston Globe” wrote about a dog that was frightened by thunderstorms and ran around a house frantically searching for a quiet location: 4
Even under favorable conditions a closed door is a challenge to a dog, a door being definable as a thing which a dog is always on the wrong side.
In 1937 “The Observer” of London published a letter to the editor from O. M. Gregor which included an instance of the saying applied to cats:
Most people allow their cats to become tyrants. Why is it that when the cat wants to come in or go out (and a cat is notoriously “an animal that is always on the wrong side of a door”) everyone immediately flies to open it? Not so with a dog; it is: “Lie down, sir–and wait till I choose to let you in (or out) in my own good time.”
The saying was further distributed when the letter from O. M. Gregor was reprinted in other newspapers such as “The Ottawa Evening Journal” of Ontario, Canada 6 and the “Victoria Daily Times” of British Columbia, Canada. 7
In 1939 T. S. Eliot published a collection of light verse titled “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” which included a piece titled “The Rum Tum Tugger” containing the four following lines: 8
The Rum Tum Tugger is a terrible bore:
When you let him in, then he wants to be out;
He’s always on the wrong side of every door,
And as soon as he’s at home, then he’d like to get about.
Also, in 1939 author and scholar William Lyon Phelps employed an instance of the saying applied to dogs within his autobiography: 9
The superiority of the cat is shown most convincingly in his intellectual resources. You may love a dog but the cat commands your respect. His infinite capacity to keep still makes him good company for many quiet hours. The dog, as someone has said, is always on the wrong side of the door.
In 1941 Ogden Nash published the collection “The Face Is Familiar” containing a poem titled “An Introduction to Dogs” with the following thematically pertinent lines 10
A dog that is indoors
To be let out implores.
You let him out and what then?
He wants back in again.
In 1953 Ogden Nash published the collection “The Private Dining Room” containing the verse “A Dog’s Best Friend Is His Illiteracy” which starts with the following lines: 11
It has been well said that quietness is what a Grecian urn is the still unravished bride of,
And that a door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of.
Nash’s initial line was referencing the beginning line of the well-known work “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by the English Romantic poet John Keats: “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness”.
In 1958 gossip columnist by Earl Wilson recalled the words of Ogden Nash: 12
WISH I’D SAID THAT: “A door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of.” —Oden Nash.
In 1985 a newspaper in Provo, Utah attributed the saying to T.S. Eliot: 13
Fanciful writer T.S. Eliot says cats are “always on the wrong side of the door, scratching to get out or scratching to get in.”
In conclusion, this saying was applied to dogs by 1898 and to cats by 1907. T. S. Eliot used the phrase while describing the cat Rum Tug Tugger in 1939. Ogden Nash crafted a memorable instance using the word “perpetually” in 1953.
(Great thanks to the anonymous cat enthusiast whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1898 November 11, Manchester Weekly Times, Cream of Current Literature: Some Royal Favourites Dogs and Cats, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Manchester, Greater Manchester, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1907 April 14, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The Passing of Satina by Kate Upson Clark, Section: Editorial, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1911 February 15, The Boston Globe, The Off Horse, Quote Page 10, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1929 August 3, The Boston Globe, Thunderstorm and a Dog and Also a New Door, Quote Page 15, Column 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1937 June 20, The Observer, Letters to the Editor of The Observer, Letter Title: The Tyrant, (Letter from O. M. Gregor, Exton, Exeter), Quote Page 9, Column 3, London, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1937 July 3, The Ottawa Evening Journal, Letters to The London Observer, (Letter from O. M. Gregor, Exton, Exeter), Quote Page 9, Column 3, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1937 August 7, Victoria Daily Times, For Those Whose Cat Scratches Furniture, Letters in The London Observer, (Letter from O. M. Gregor, Exton, Exeter), Quote Page 3, Column 7, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1967 (1939 Copyright), Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot (Thomas Stearns Eliot), Poem: The Rum Tum Tugger, Start Page 21, Quote Page 21, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1939, Autobiography, With Letters, William Lyon Phelps, Chapter 4: Interlude On Cats, Start Page 28, Quote Page 32, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1941, The Face Is Familiar by Ogden Nash, Poem: An Introduction to Dogs, Start Page 314, Quote Page 314, Garden City Publishing Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1953 Copyright, The Private Dining Room, and Other New Verses by Ogden Nash, A Dog’s Best Friend Is His Illiteracy, Start Page 69, Quote Page 69, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1958 January 1, St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Midnight Earl by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 8F, Column 4,St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1985 April 21, The Daily Herald, They May Be Wonderful, Whimsical, Sly Or Unruly…, by Torri Latimer (Asst. Today Editor), Quote Page 29, Column 2, Provo, Utah. (Newspapers_com) ↩