The fictional Cheshire Cat, popularised by Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is famous for its mischievous wide grin that stays while the rest of its body vanishes in thin air. Although the cat may seem of dubious character, its saving grace may just be it is not known to be cat-scratch extending.
While mainly attributed to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in popular culture, the grinning Cheshire Cat predates the 1865 novel but has since extended its influence beyond the context of literature and has enmeshed in political cartoons, satirical media, advertisement, as well as multi-disciplinary studies, from entertainment and linguistics, business and politics to science and astronomy.
There are numerous suggestions on the origins of the phrase “grinning like a Cheshire Cat” in English culture. One of the likely sources is that the cats of Cheshire of England often grin, sated with milk and cream from numerous dairy farms in the county. Cheshire was an important milk, cheese and cream producing county for several centuries.
Another possible origin was the British Shorthair breed. The Cat Fanciers’ Association profile states: “When gracelessness is observed, the British Shorthair is duly embarrassed, quickly recovering with a ‘Cheshire cat smile’”.
There is another source based on a medieval story. In the City of Chester, wherein lived one landowner, John Catterall. Catterall was a skilled axman who took on the post of Public Executioner when called upon. He was infamously known for the way in which he executed wrongdoers – with a gigantic wide grin on his face. Coincidentally, his coat of arms displayed a grinning cat.