The ancient Roman word for a pet was deliciae, which we’ve inherited in DELICIous and DELIGHTful. It’s what the first century B.C. poet Catullus called his girlfriend Lesbia’s sparrow, despite his annoyance that the bird played in the lady’s lap more than he did. My own childhood pets included gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, white mice and rats — all furry little mammals called RODents, from the Latin for "gnawing," rodo/rosum. The same verb gives us eRODe and corROSion, which to the Romans literally meant, respectively, "to eat away" and "chewing up" — much of our English vocabulary is just this visual, once you’re aware of the Latin roots.
I also cherished chameleons (still do), and praying mantises, which inhabited my bedroom window, betwixt screen and glass, and inspired my affection for that C-minus 1957 sci-fi movie "The Deadly Mantis." We never had cats when I was growing up, but did adopt a sweet, scruffy schnauzer, my one boyhood dog. We called her Blondie, I guess for the color of her hair — though the name reminded me of the Blondie comic strip I read voraciously in the Sunday funnies. At age 12 or so I wanted to become a professional cartoonist, which didn’t work out because I wasn’t any good at drawing.
When I headed off to college at age 17, I wasn’t thinking about pets, being far more interested in Elvis, the Beatles, parties and girls. My first wife and I got married senior year and soon adopted a slightly crazy cat. While doing my graduate work, and later as a young UGA professor, we had three babies, multiple dogs (including a 150-pound St. Bernard we named "Cerberus" for the three-headed hellhound of classical myth), and herds of cats.
The ancient Romans were more into canines (from Lat. canis/dog), but they certainly appreciated cats (Lat. feles/felis as in FELine) — not least for their inclination to dine on meddling mice ("Love to eat them mousies, Mousies what I love to eat. Bite they little heads off … Nibble on they tiny feet" — with thanks to the late, great cat-toonist B. Kliban). They were especially enjoyed by women for their playfulness. The elder Pliny admired their stealth, noting how quietly they could creep up on their victims and (in J. Toynbee’s translation) how "when they need to do their business they dig a hole in the earth and bury every trace," thus concealing their scent from prospective predators.
Cats had been domesticated as early as 2000 B.C. by the Egyptians, who called them miu (yes, creatures that say "mew"), venerated them as the warrior cat goddess Bastet, and even mummified them. From Egypt they were imported by the Greeks (whose word for cat was ailuros, "tail-twitcher") and Italians. In Greco-Roman art they first appear on coins and in vase paintings of the fifth century B.C. They are depicted sometimes playing in the presence of their mistresses, standing on their hind legs, on leashes, dancing to music, toying with balls, and often gazing hungrily at a nearby goose or partridge.
One well-known mosaic from Pompeii shows a wide-eyed, striped and spotted cat with his paw on a plump bird he is contemplating for dinner. While skeletal remains of domesticated dogs have been found in the excavations of the city, destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, and a plaster cast has been made of one that had been trapped and completely covered in hardened ash, there is very little such evidence for cats. As one scholar speculated, "did the cats have some uncanny premonition and escape in time from the doomed towns?" — felines do have nine lives, after all.
A student recently sent me a link to an article titled "A cat co-authored an influential physics paper." The scientist-author had jokingly named his "collaborator" F.D.C. Willard, "after his species name, Felix domesticus, his actual name, Chester, and the name of the cat’s father, Willard." It’s a funny story, but even funnier is the writer’s f-word. An early scientific name for the household pet was Felis domesticus (from domus/home, as in DOMestic and DOMicile). Felix/felicis, however, doesn’t mean "cat" but is instead an adjective meaning "happy" or "fortunate," as in FELICitous and FELICity. Now, there was a celebrated "Felix the Cat" in comics I enjoyed in my youth (and TRIED to draw), and that cartoon star (felixthecat.com) may possibly have been named with a pun on felix vs. felis in mind. But Felix domesticus is an inFELICitous slip, though it does conjure the image of a Happy Cat!
The post-classical Latin term for "tom-cat," cattus/gattus, is related to English CAT and to CATerwaul, the wailing cry of a cat in rut. In the medieval fable, "Belling the Cat," a group of nervous mice call a meeting to discuss ways of protecting themselves from the neighborhood cattus. One brilliant mouse/mus (the diminutive musculus gives us MUSCLe, which like your flexing bicep, the Romans thought, resembles a "little mouse") proposed hanging a bell from the critter’s neck, so they could hear his approach. The other mice approved the plan, but to the crucial question, "Who will bell the cat?" each and every one replied, Certe non ego, "Certainly not I!" In a mosaic from Morocco a cat labeled Vincentius/Conqueror (our name VINCENT), sporting a red collar and bell, slays a mouse named Luxurius/The Extravagant, likely parodying a gladiatorial victory.
Alice and I are down to just one quadruped now, our beloved French bulldog Ipsa, but from time to time we’re tempted to adopt another cat, as the five who once owned us have all passed on to "Cat Heaven" (title of a popular children’s book by Cynthia Rylant). There are plenty of other "ailurophiles" (Greek for "cat-lovers") in our community and some volunteer at the local animal shelter, where they are always trying to identify loving homes for their feline wards. Maybe we should head over there right now and find ourselves a furry new miu.
— Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.