Curiosity killed the cat

Published 7:36 pm Friday, November 9, 2018


Coffee with Mimi

Words are interesting. The use of certain words in certain phrases is a curiosity. Where did that word originate? What language and culture attached that meaning to that set of letters?

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When I was teaching, I developed a unit of study I loosely referred to as “Those darn Greeks, again.” I used the phrase because often, the students weren’t as enamored with the connections of the Greeks to modern society as was I. Poking a bit of fun at the classics might catch their attention. Classes beginning with some reference to a Greek contribution to our culture generally elicited subtle, or not so subtle, eye rolls and groans from a room full of 12-year-olds. They generally accepted the conversation would result in some assignment which would take away valuable time from other 12-year-old pursuits that evening. They were often correct.

I was fair. I wouldn’t ask more of my students than I was willing to do myself in the arena of finding out and discovering. It was more than getting an answer. I am a generally curious person, by nature. “Mrs. Becker, why do we…..?” Well, I don’t know. Let’s find out. Sure, the question could be a well-calculated effort to derail a teacher-directed foray into some less intriguing aspect of American history, further delaying the inevitable, at least for the day. But, you know, curiosity is a great teacher all by itself.

So goes my life today. Thank goodness for the person(s) who invented the internet and those wonderful little devices which connect us to it at any time of the day or night and in almost any place. During an episode of one of my favorite programs, the character who is the very geeky president dragged some of his staff along on a shopping trip to a rare book store. The staff was exhibiting behavior not dissimilar to that of my 12-year-old students.

Finally, though heading out of the shop, the president spies a copy of the biography and teachings of Epicurus and adds it to his pile of purchases. No explanation or homily was forthcoming from the geeky president as to the relevance or his interest. But, my curiosity antennae perked up. I know that word from back in my cooking days. I will look old Epicurus up right now without leaving the confines of my living room couch.

And, there he was on my tiny little screen in my palm. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher (I told you so) who developed a very popular school of thought espousing a life of simple pleasures, friendship and retirement. A man after my own heart. What more is there than simple pleasures, friends and of course, retirement to warm a cold November morning?

I should have left it alone. If you know a little bit, more is not always better. Still, I had to look further. As the years progressed, renderings of Epicurean philosophy evolved to interpretations leaning towards excess in expressions of refinement often related to tastes in food and entertainment. Do you get my drift? The word hedonism was actually used in one source. In some fairness to the Greeks, the interpretation possibly did not attach itself to his philosophy until those Romans (and we know about them) got hold of it.

Curiosity killed the cat. The potential connection between the arrangement of letters in curiosity and Epicurus spun me in another direction. If curiosity has led us to such beneficial discoveries as penicillin, the bread slicing machine and satellite radio in the car, how could it be detrimental to our longevity? What do cats have to do with it? What does it have to do with Epicurus?  Are the words connected?

Look it up. The explanation is less than satisfactory, and too complicated for reason.The phrase is intended to warn people, maybe curious children, that it is unwise to become involved in ill-advised or poorly designed experimentation and investigation. Although, in my experience, applying any rationale equally to human and cat behavior is possibly just as ill-advised as risky experimentation. But, I’m not a cat lover, so don’t look to me for interpretive guidance.

One source attempted to justify the cat killing philosophy by a reference to some archaic/arcane second phrase used in some Shakespearean plays, “but satisfaction brought it back.” Seriously, what on earth does that mean? It’s stuff like that which alienates potential Shakespeare fans.

The source goes on to report that the original phrase was “care killed the cat.” Can’t stop now.  The word curious is derived from the Middle English back to the Old French back to the Latin word for “care.” So “care” did the cat in.

Enough already. Turn off the darn internet connected, conveniently hand held device and get off the couch. 

Words are words. I like words. Curiosity is a good word. Epicurus was right. Simple pleasures, friendship, retirement. All good words. Simple enough. Take the man at his words.  It’s easier.  Looking too deeply will kill your pleasant, simple interpretations and understandings, catlike or otherwise.

Wonder what he meant by retirement?