“Organizing Democrats is like herding cats.” The first time I remember hearing the cat herding idiom was when I was a volunteer at the Robert Kennedy for President campaign way back in 1968. The state organizing manager explained his prior experiences of assembling canvassers for door to door work. In our case, he was pleased because there were plenty of willing volunteers. As he handed out neighborhood maps, his intent was to keep our efforts coordinated without overlap. I remember very little about the rest of the day, but the phrase stuck with me.
This weekend, several neighborhood stray felines had congregated near my garage. Most of them looked at me with indifference but three or four scampered away immediately. As I made eye-contact with a large, tan cat the idiom popped into my mind. The big Tom apparently has the skill-set required to herd his fellow cats. The thought of this made me smile.
Out of curiosity, I later Googled to find out the idiom’s origin. Allegedly, the first documented account of comparing a group organizing to cat herding was a short snippet in “The Washington Post Magazine” of June 9, 1985: “At Group L, Stoffel oversees six first-rate programmers, a managerial challenge roughly comparable to herding cats.”
This puzzles me, mainly because I distinctly remember hearing it in 1968. The etymology of this idiom is obviously incomplete. A query on the Ecosia Search Engine brought up a Wiktionary reference to the Monty Python movie “The Life of Brian”. In the scene that shepherds are discussing stray sheep and comparing them to cats: “Can you imagine herds of cats waiting to be sheared?” That analogy appeared in 1979. That’s eleven years later than when I first heard of the comparison.
Regardless of when the idiom was coined, it’s one of my favorites. I’ve seen it written and heard it expressed in several different situations. It’s apt in every case.
Regarding any plans to corral the neighborhood stray felines, this is not an experiment I wish to try anytime soon. I’ll leave the cat herding responsibilities to that big, tan, kitty.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes physicist, science historian, and educator, Gerald J. Holton. “Even in the best times, managing science has been compared to herding cats; it is not done well, but one is surprised to find it done at all.”