For many years, I’ve liked the writings of James Thurber. One of my favorite stories of all time is “The Night the Bed Fell.” Another one that I particularly love is “The Unicorn in the Garden.”
I can remember that I did read a story once called, “The Catbird Seat,” and at the time that I read the story, I could understand what the phrase meant. However, by now, it has been quite a few years since I’ve read the story and I’ve completely forgotten the meaning of the phrase. All I can remember is that when I first heard of the story, I thought it was odd to have a word such as “catbird” because supposedly cats are enemies of birds. I can also remember wondering if this was anything like a catfish and did I not know about a catbird.
As it turns out, a catbird is a species of bird. There is an Australian catbird, but this phrase comes from the gray catbird, an American species. They are related to the mocking bird. They often sing a song with a copy of notes from other birds, frogs, and even mechanical noises that they have heard. The call sounds like the mew of a cat and my family learned that we may be hearing catbirds during the winter when my mom has thought that a cat is in heat.
The catbird is gray, though it does have a black cap and a black tail, with brown underneath the tail. It is quite territorial and tends to seek out the highest perch in many trees if it is not in the low vegetation.
The catbird also tends to kill the eggs of some species of sparrows, so it has an advantage for breeding and population.
This is why “in the catbird seat” means to have an advantageous position.
For some reason, though it is not known why, the phrase seems to be related to baseball.
The first time that the phrase is found in print is in James Thurber’s 55 Short Stories from New Yorker. This was published in November 1942.
It says, “She must be a Dodger fan. Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions… ‘sitting in the catbird seat’ means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.”
Bernardo, Karen. “James Thurber’s ‘The Catbird Seat'”. Storybites. June 7, 2010 http://www.storybites.com/thurbercatbird2.htm>.
“Gray Catbird”. All About Birds. June 7, 2010 http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Gray_Catbird/>.
Martin, Gary. “In the catbird seat”. The Phrase Finder. June 7, 2010 http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/87600.html>.