What a Copycat

Why do we call imitators “cats”? Why not monkeys?

London riots, 2011.

After the riots in Tottenham spread to other parts of London, and later, other parts of the U.K., police condemned the wave of “ copycat criminal activity,” according to the BBC. A term for someone who imitates another person, the word copycat has been applied to attacks, crimes, suicides, and, not least of all, uninventive kids at the playground. But where does the term copycat come from?

Nineteenth-century Maine. Constance Cary Harrison’s 1887 quasi-memoir Bar Harbor Days contains the first written evidence of the term copycat—that we know of, anyway. “Our boys say you are a copy cat, if you write in anything that’s been already printed.” Another early example comes from a different Maine-born writer, Sarah Orne Jewett, in her 1890 novel Betty Leicester: A Story for Girls. “I wouldn’t be such a copy-cat,” Lizzie French tells Betty, upon hearing that Betty wants to start a second all-girls club. Jewett used it again in her 1896 novel Country of Pointed Firs,about an elderly landlady in small-town coastal Maine who tells her friend Mrs. Fosdick, “In these days, the young folk is all copy-cats, ‘fraid to death they won’t be all just alike.” Mrs. Fosdick’s response suggests that the term had been part of the spoken vernacular for some time: “I ain’t heard of a copy-cat this great many years,” said Mrs. Fosdick, laughing; ” ‘twas a favorite term o’ my grandmother’s.”

Unlike monkeys and parrots, cats aren’t actually known for imitative behavior, but the term is somewhat logical since “cat” has been an insult since the medieval period. Cats were associated with all sorts of evil and mischief. In an early-13th-century monastic guidebook for female monks called Ancrene Riwle, for instance, the anonymous author warns ascetics against becoming “cats of hell.” (The term “hell-cat,” by the way, began to crop up around 1603, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.) More famously, Shakespeare used “cat” in a similarly negative sense in All’s Well That End’s Well; Count Bertram tells his right-hand man that Captain Dumain seems increasingly sleazy: “A pox upon him for me, he’s more and more a Cat.” Judging from this etymological history, a “copycat” isn’t someone who copies, like a cat, but a jerk prone to imitation.

The word copycat was likely first applied to criminal activity in the early 1960s. In the well-known 1961 article “ Case of the Copycat Criminal,” David Dressler explains that “when crime comes in waves, simple imitation plays a large part in the phenomenon.” Another article from 1961, this time in the Daily Telegraph, called the brutal slaying of a homosexual named George Stobbs a “copycat murder.” (A year earlier, another gay man had been killed in a similar attack.) But the term “copycat crime” didn’t really gain currency until the early 1980s. In 1982, someone, or perhaps a number of people, replaced Tylenol powder with cyanide, killing seven. A few months later, poisonous substances were found in pharmaceuticals and food products, leading police to blame “copycats” influenced by the Tylenol Murders.

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Explainer thanks Peter Borchelt of the Animal Medical Center and Ben Zimmer of the Visual Thesaurus.