White For Danger


White for Danger

by Richard M. Seel

December 1977


This essay is based around some peculiar correspondences found by examining over twenty variants of a common rumour or ‘urban folktale’. I have more to say about these in appendix one; this prologue is simply to introduce the relevant features of this particular rumour.

Study of all the versions I have collected leads me to the conclusion that this particular rumour has an invariant structure which can be defined in a similar way to the way that Levi-Strauss defines the structure of a myth, or Saussure the structure of a sentence. That is to say it is a syntagmatic chain, the links of which are elements from a number of paradigmatic sets. There is a difference between rumour and myth, though. Levi-Strauss assumes that a myth can be broken up into episodes, each one of which is a transformation of the others. Rumours are usually simpler than myths and so the structure is easier to see. For instance, considering our rumour as the sum of all its variants (see Levi-Strauss 1963b:216ff) we can write it something like this:

There may well be better ways of analysing this rumour but this should illustrate the sort of thing which I think can be done. It should be noted that the sets are not independent of each other, there are relationships between them. For instance the presence of ‘meat’ in 5 requires dog or horse in 4, lamb in 5 requires dog in 4, chicken in 5 requires cat, rat, and possibly dog or cat-food in 4, and if 5 is suppressed anything but horse may appear in 4.

Part One


This essay is about symbols and the comparison of symbols. It is also about taboo in English society. Specifically it is about the fitness of certain common animals for human consumption. The stimulus for the essay comes from an analysis of a certain folk rumour which is commonly known in this society. The rumour, which is analysed in greater depth in appendix one, states that a restaurant, usually foreign, has been discovered serving up a taboo meat instead of an acceptable meat. In its most common form, ‘cat’ is reportedly served up instead of ‘chicken’.

At first sight there seems no reason why cat and chicken should be connected, and the main task of this essay is to try to discover what links there are between them. But there are other ‘anomalous’ meats and substitutions reported and the conclusions I come to in the case of cat and chicken will have to be tested with reference to these other meats. In order to attempt a solution to the problem some theoretical assumptions about the nature of symbols have had to be made. These I discuss briefly in part two.

I deal with rumour in more detail in appendix one and for the present it is sufficient merely to state that the cat/chicken rumour seems to have a latent and invariant structure, consisting, like a sentence, of a syntagmatic chain of elements from paradigmatic sets (see above and appendix one). But although I have used some insights from structural linguistics to expose the structure of the rumour I reject the view that a symbol is a type of linguistic sign, I am therefore concerned, to an extent, with the symbols themselves and not just their relations with other symbols.

Specifically in this essay, I am interested in the elements of just two of the paradigmatic sets of the rumour, which I have labelled sets 4 and 5. The elements of set 4 are cat, dog, rat, horse, cat-food, and possibly human flesh. The elements of set 5 are chicken, lamb, and ‘meat’. A fuller explanation will be found in appendix one.

The Folk Explanations

As well as asking people if they had heard any versions of the rumour I also asked some if they had any idea why the cat/chicken correspondence occurs. Some explanations were also offered spontaneously. At first these explanations appeared to make things worse, just more quaint ideas which needed explanation from me. But as I played about with the ideas expressed, certain underlying consistencies became apparent.

The first clue came very early on, in about the third or fourth version collected (R12). (All versions are listed in appendix two). Here a reason was specifically and spontaneously given: cats are used instead of chickens because they taste the same. This was subsequently confirmed by another informant (R13). I asked why this should be se, but no answer was forthcoming.

However, in conversation with CG (who told me R5 & R14) I mentioned this and she was amazed, claiming that cat and chicken couldn’t possibly taste the same because cats are carnivorous and chickens are not. According to her, carnivorous meat tastes much stronger than meat from herbivores.

A similar view was expressed by GA (who gave me R21). He had not heard of the specific relationship between cat and chicken, but when I mentioned cat he said, ‘Cat instead of chicken.’ I asked why and he said that cats most resemble (anatomically) rabbits and that rabbit could definitely be disguised as chicken. According to him this used to happen during the second world war when chicken was very scarce. He claimed that restaurants would put chicken on the menu, but would in fact serve rabbit instead. I’ve no idea if this is true or not. It may well be yet another variation of the basic rumour, in which case rabbit should also be included in set 4.

However GA then went on to say that the cat/chicken substitution would not go undetected for long because cats are carnivorous and therefore strong-tasting, whereas chickens are herbivorous—apart from worms which they no longer eat (I presume that he meant that is because they are kept in battery houses nowadays). This means that chickens will be blander in flavour than cat.

The link with rabbit was also stated by PO (who gave R24-26). I said that I was interested in why cats were linked with chicken and he said it was because they both had ‘light’ meat (he might actually have said ‘white’, but as the conversation actually took place on a noisy and crowded Piccadilly Line train I can’t be certain). I asked how he knew this, and he got a little flustered and then said that cat was like rabbit and rabbit had light meat. Then he changed his mind and said that, no, rabbit didn’t really have light meat did it? Unfortunately I had to get off the train at that moment.

GS, who supplied R9 and R13, told me in a subsequent conversation that she had been told that the reason that cats were substituted for chickens was that they were anatomically similar. She was told that the rear of the cat is particularly like the leg of a chicken (!) and also that both cat and chicken have ‘white’ meat.

A couple of days later I was discussing the rumour with a friend, ML. His only recollection of the rumour was very vague (R10) and he had not been aware of the cat/chicken identification until I mentioned it to him. He immediately said that they were interchangeable because they both had white meat. He then gave a very elaborate a account of the red meat/ white meat distinction which I tabulate below. All of this information poured out without any prompting from me, with the exception of the rat. I asked him what colour meat he thought rat would have and after a slight hesitation he put it into the category white. He also spontaneously noted that dog was about as red as lamb.

Table one (+ or - indicates degree of redness or whiteness). ML's categories:

RED                                                                   WHITE

Venison++                                                        Veal

Boar++                                                              Chicken

Cattle+                                                               Cat

Sheep                                                                  Tame rabbit

Lamb                                                                  Pig-

Dog                                                                    (Rat)


Wild Rabbit-                                                    

After some discussion it became clear that ML was making his assignments into one or other of the categories by manipulating three variables: distance from home, size of animal, and type of diet. I will discuss this in more detail in part two.

I have mentioned the matter of the colour of the meat to other people, and there is no consensus in the case of cat - for reasons of economy I have not asked about other meats. For instance, GA who stressed the carnivorous nature of the cat told me that it had red meat. Altogether the folk explanations are by no means consistent, but they have provided many useful hints and clues.

The Anthropological Explanations

Since cat is commonly not eaten and chicken is commonly eaten it seems appropriate to write cat : chicken :: taboo : non-taboo. If this essay is indeed about taboo, then the obvious place to look for guidance is Edmund Leach’s paper on verbal categories and animal abuse (Leach 1964) which deals with English food taboos. Leach considers edible substances and divides them into three kinds:

(1)   Edible substances recognised as food and consumed as part of normal diet.

(2)   Edible substances recognised as food, but prohibited or only eaten under special ritual circumstances.

(3)   Edible substances which are not recognised as food at all. (1964:44)

Leach says that the second type is conscious taboo (the kind of taboo which anthropologists have traditionally spent most time discussing) and includes such things as the Jewish avoidance of Pork. The third category he calls unconscious taboo and it is to this category that Leach assigns, for example, pets.

However one must ask if these categories are sufficient to cover all cases. On grounds of symmetry alone I would suspect not (cf Levi-Strauss’s statement of method—1963a:84ff). So far we have, (1) food/eaten,  (2) food/not eaten and (3) not food/not eaten. For completeness we need (4) not food/eaten. I tentatively suggest that gourmet dishes such as lark’s tongues and the famous Lele pangolin (Douglas 1966:197ff) are to be included in this last category. Indeed in as much as the Christian eucharist can be considered an act of symbolic cannibalism it is also in category 4 since human flesh is usually regarded as not-food in polite English society. Leach actually mentions this example, but puts it into category (2) where it clearly does not belong.

In the same paper Leach proposes a theory of taboo which as far as I know he has not altered substantially since—certainly it appears in less detail but substantially unchanged in Leach(1976). His thesis is that some animals are treated by the English as taboo (in the sense of (3) above) or sacred and that this sacredness shows itself partly in behavioural ways, as when we refrain from eating their flesh, and also linguistically, as when the name of the animal, or a near homophone, is found to be a focus of some sort of obscenity or term of abuse.

Then, with acknowledgements to Radcliffe-Brown, Mary Douglas, and Levi-Strauss, he postulates that

...the physical and social environment of a young child is perceived as a continuum. It does not contain any intrinsically separate ‘things’. The child, in due course, is taught to impose upon this environment a kind of discriminating grid which serves to distinguish the world as being composed of a large number of separate things, each labelled with a name.’ (p47)

The uninhibited (untrained) human being perceives the universe as a continuum, without distinctions. We are taught to perceive the universe as discontinuous, to recognise discrete parts of the continuum as entities. Thus Leach displays an unbroken line as a schematic representation of the way the untrained mind perceives the world:


The trained mind’s perception would be schematically represented thus:

_________                        ____________          ____________         ____       ________

According to Leach we achieve this perception of discontinuity by means of the simultaneous use of language and taboo. Language names and therefore distinguishes those bits of the continuum selected as ‘things’, and taboo suppresses or inhibits recognition of those bits of the continuum which are not selected as things—which separate the things, as Leach puts it.












Alternatively the process may be represented by means of a Venn diagram:









 Circle p represents a particular verbal category and circle ~p represents the ‘environment’ of p, which one desires to keep separate from p in order to preserve the fiction that p is a distinct and discrete category. If there is an overlap between p and ~p then it will be difficult to pretend that p is distinct. But if the overlap is made taboo, we shall be able to persuade ourselves that p and ~p are distinct. To summarise:

The general theory is that taboo applies to categories which are anomalous with respect to clear-cut category oppositions. If A and B are two verbal categories, such that B is defined as ‘what A is not’, and vice versa, and there is a third category, C, which mediates this distinction, in that C shares attributes of both A and B, then C will be taboo. (ibid, pp50-51)

Leach also looks at verbal category sets which discriminate areas of social space in terms of ‘distance from ego (self)’. He gives three examples:

Table Two

(a) Self                Sister                   Cousin                Neighbour         Stranger

(b) Self                House                 Farm                   Field                   Far (remote)

(c) Self                 Pet                       Livestock           Game                  Wild animals

Leach claims that all these relationships are homologous; that the way we use the set of animal category words (c) tells us something about the set of human relationship categories (a).

He then notes that, for the English, edible food (from the animal kingdom) always comes from ‘Fish’—creatures that live in water, including ‘shellfish’, ‘Birds’—two legged creatures with wings which lay eggs, and ‘Beasts’—four legged mammals living on land. No other living creatures are. considered as potential food (they all fall into category three above) because they are anomalous with respect to the three major categories.

But not all members of Fish, Birds and Beasts are considered suitable for human consumption. Many of them are also subject to unconscious taboo. Leach now claims that the English put beasts into four categories:

1 ) Those that are very close, ’pets’, always inedible.

2) Those which are tame but not very close, ‘farm animals’ or ‘livestock’, which are mostly edible, but only if immature or castrated.

3) Field animals, ‘game’, which are wild though under man’s protection, They may be killed and eaten sexually intact though only in accordance with certain ritual prescriptions (the hunt etc).

4) Remote wild animals—not subject to human control, inedible.

Leach explains the taboo surrounding ‘pets’ as follows:

Table Three


p                                             p + ~p                                   ~p

man                                        man-animal                          not-man

(not-animal)                            (pets)                                       (animal)

So pets are taboo because they share some characteristics with man; they share his living space, they are given names, etc and also some characteristics with animals; four legs not two etc. Similarly ‘game’ is taboo because:

Table Four


p                                             p + ~p                                   ~p

TAME                                    GAME                                   WILD

(friendly)                                 (hostile/friendly)                     (hostile)

Perhaps because he was primarily concerned with anthropological aspects of language, Leach doesn’t take the matter of edibility or taboo much further than this. And as it stands it certainly doesn’t help much with my cat/chicken problem. All we have done is shown why cats aren’t eaten (because they’re pets) and why chickens are (because they’re livestock)—but the rumour suggests that neither of these categories are as secure as they might be otherwise supposed. I therefore propose to break the problem up into three parts and to consider edibility of the cat, the edibility of the chicken, and thirdly relationship between the two.

The cat

It is possible to conflate Leach’s last three tables (2,3,&4) to give:

Table Five

Self                      House                 Farm                   Field                   Far (remote)

Self                      Pet                       Livestock           Game                  Wild animals

Inedible              taboo                   edible                 taboo                   inedible

(3)                        (?)                        (1)                        (2)                        (3)

The figures underneath refer to the categories of edibility. I have used the term ‘inedible’ to correspond with category 3—what Leach calls unconscious taboo—and taboo for the two intermediate categories displayed in tables three and four. ‘Game’ clearly belongs to category 2, it is eaten but only when killed under ritual conditions. But what category does ‘pet’ belong to? It appears that Leach supposes that pets are category 3 since he writes,

Man and dog are ‘companions’; the dog is ‘the friend of man’. On the other hand man and food are antithetical categories. Man is not food, so dog cannot be food either.” (ibid p45)

Yet a look at table three shows that it is unlikely to be as simple as that. Pets form a tabooed overlap between man (not-food) and animals (food). They do not fit neatly into either category. The matter is made more difficult by the fact that Leach works entirely with categories. Whilst this simplifies the problem in some ways, it has its own disadvantages, particularly when attempting to compare categories.

I suggest in part two that categories are in fact complex entities which are functions of several dimensions of classification. In order compare them it is necessary to keep the values constant along all dimensions except one. Thus in table three Leach varies the dimension of ‘humanness;’ and in table four he varies the dimension of ‘tameness’. So here I am making a variation in the dimension ‘suitability as food’. All these, and many other, dimensions of classification are implicit in the definitions of the categories ‘man’, ‘pet’, ‘animal’, ‘livestock’ and so on.

So if Leach’s approach is used a little more systematically than he himself was prepared to go we find that some uncertainty about the edibility of ‘pets’ is to be expected. And the rumour confirms it. People do display some uneasiness about the precise edible category of pets. Indeed it may well be that one of the functions of the rumour is to allow this uncertainty to be expressed and explored; even ‘mediated’ as Levi-Strauss might put it

But to return to categories of edibility. If pets are not (3), they are don’t really seem to be (2) either. In the rumour cat is being treated as if it belonged to (4), that is the category that Leach did not mention, the eating of not-food. The only time we eat not-food is in a ritual context, or to be more precise in a more markedly ritual context than that of the ordinary meal (cf the Eucharist).

One invariant of the rumour is that the food is always prepared by someone else and is always eaten in ‘foreign’ surroundings—pointed up in most variants by the overtly foreign nature of the food served. It is not implausible that uncertainty about food categories and wariness about eating a stranger’s food should come together and give the construction:

Strangers, might serve strange food; pets are strange (anomalous) food. Therefore strangers might serve pets.

If this is accepted it accounts for the presence of  the cat and dog in set 4 of the rumour’s structure, but not for the other members. It also does not account for pre-eminence of the cat. But before considering these problems further I want to return to Leach’s theory of taboo and see what light, if any, it can shed on the position of the chicken.

The chicken

Leach specifically excludes birds from his consideration, but there is no reason to suppose that they are treated in any fundamentally different way from beasts. Indeed the categories enunciated above seem to fit birds just as well as beasts:

Table Six

Self                 house             farm                field               far (remote)

Self                 pet                  livestock        game              wild animals

Self                 cat                   cow                 deer                wolf (typical animals)

Self                 budgie           chicken          pheasant        eagle (typical birds)

So there seems little reason to confuse cat and chicken. We have shown that cat is in an anomalous category, but the chicken seems secure enough. The ‘farm’ category definitely seems to be edible.

But a closer look at the categories house...farm...field...far shows that things are not quite so simple. Leach considers them merely as markers of distance from self, but they also represent different degrees imposition of culture upon nature. And if this is the case then it is possible, indeed I think it is necessary, to introduce a further differentiation:


In order to avoid confusion I have substituted ‘country’ for what Leach calls ‘field’, and I have subdivided ‘farm’ into ‘yard’ and ‘pasture’. No doubt further subdivision could be made but I want to keep things as simple as possible. If we follow Leach and break up the continuum by creating categories and tabooed boundaries we might have:

Table Seven


p                                             p + ~p                                   ~p

house                                     yard                                       pasture

(man-made)                            (made & grown)                     (grown by nature)


Table Eight


p                                             p + ~p                                        ~p

pasture                                  country                                      far

(cultivated & ordered)            (partially ordered)                        (uncultivated)

(straight man-made lines)       (non-straight man-made lines)    (no man-made lines)

By choosing different dimensions of classification as means of comparing our categories we have found a new taboo category; the yard. (Country is the same as Leach’s ‘field’ and is still taboo.) But what animals go into the two new categories, yard and pasture? We need some way of assigning members of the category ‘livestock’ (see above table six) to the new categories.

Surprisingly enough the answer has already been given. Table one, given by one of my informants, divided animals into two groups, red and white. If we look at those animals in that table which come into the category of livestock we see that cattle and sheep are classified as red, and pigs and chicken are classified as white.

This distinction precisely corresponds to the distinction between yard and pasture. Sheep and cattle are out in the fields, whilst pigs and chickens are kept near the farm, either running free in the yard or in pens or outbuildings. The point is further made by the inclusion of veal calves in the category white. When calves are kept in pasture their meat is red, but veal calves are kept near to the farm, shut up in outbuildings, and so their meat is white. Putting this information together with tables seven and eight we have:

Table Nine

House                 yard                    pasture               country               far

Pets                     white                   red                      game                   wild

culture                 taboo                    nature/culture     taboo                    nature

So pets are not taboo in this dimension of classification whilst some livestock, such as pigs and chickens, are. The categorisations represented in tables five and nine are different, though obviously not totally dissimilar, and there is no reason to suppose that taboos present in one dimension of classification will necessarily be present in another.

Thus another part of the puzzle falls into place. It will cause no surprise that I have demonstrated that the pig is a taboo animal in some respects in our society. For instance, my wife’s mother’s mother would not eat pork at all during the summer—more precisely, unless there was an ‘r’ in the month; a form of ritual avoidance also found in connection with other foods such as oysters. This rule has also been mentioned to me by others, but it no longer seems to be in operation, and its demise seems to be due to the invention of the refrigerator. It appears that it was the heat of the summer months which made pork extra-dangerous and subject to avoidance. Today the taboo may be removed by placing the meat in an enclosed place of mystical coldness. The fridge has become quite a potent symbol of cleansing in our society (most people are unable to image how they could possibly cope without one) and its appearance in several versions of the rumour (R15, R16, R23) may be significant.

But the taboo nature of the chicken is rather more surprising; the rumour provides one of the few indications of it. Indeed it is again possible that one of the functions of the rumour is to allow this disquiet to be expressed in a way that is not commonly done. People talk a lot about the declining flavour of the chicken, but not its danger. Pork, on the other hand, is acknowledged to be dangerous and so there may be no need for it to be included in the rumour.

One more oddity of the chicken may be noted here. There is, in English society, a general reluctance to touch cooked food, particularly hot cooked food at the meal table. The chicken provides one of the most general exceptions to this rule. Everyone I have spoken to about it said that as children they were allowed to pick up chicken bones, a wing or a leg, and eat the meat off them during a meal.

Some also mentioned that this indulgence was extended to lamb chop bones. bones. No-one mentioned being able to pick up pork chop bones or rabbit bones. In my own family of orientation, as far as I can remember, we were permitted to pick chicken bones, but no others (except turkey at Christmas). However this rule was relaxed when not at the meal table and we were often allowed to pick at any bone in the kitchen when all the meat had been carved off it.

Apart from the singular nature of the chicken thus demonstrated, there are two points of interest here. Firstly this is one of the few links specifically given between chicken and lamb. Secondly, in the light of this practice the presence of ‘bones’ in so many versions of the rumour (R1, R4, R5, R11, R14, R15, R22, et al) may well be of some significance here.

Cat and Chicken

But the picture is not complete. Although the presence of cats and chickens in the rumour is no longer a complete surprise, there still seems no reason to link them together. But it is possible to find links—for instance for ML and PD they both have white meat. CP and GS say they taste the same. GA says that cat is like rabbit and rabbit can be disguised as chicken. PO also equated cat and chicken via rabbit. Rabbit is a strange meat; ML put it in both red and white categories, depending on its wildness. It used to be quite commonly eaten, but now (perhaps because of myxamotosis) it is viewed with distaste by many people. It is becoming more taboo as food and tends to be regarded as mainly a potential pet. The link cat-rabbit-chicken really needs more exploration than I can give it here.

Yet CG and GA both say that cat and chicken couldn’t possibly taste the same because one is carnivorous and the other herbivorous. Although these statements are not anthropologically precise they are about classification and are therefore worth pursuing further.

The ‘colour’ of cat meat is a variable, some people say it is white, others say it is red. But what is this categorisation based upon? How can the cat be both red and white? In part two I attempt some sort of quantitative answer to these questions. Here it is sufficient to say that ‘colour’ appears to be a function of size, distance from self, and diet. Thus veal calves have white meat not only because they are nearer to self than ordinary cattle, but also because they are fed on milk—a white food (this was in fact the only specific comment on diet that ML made in his discussion cf table one). It appears that diets can be red, white, or neutral. A red diet consists of meat, a white one of ‘white’ food, and anything else—water or vegetables—seems to be neutral.

How does this affect cats and chickens? Chickens are small and fairly near to self. Their diet is fairly neutral (with the possible exception of worms) so not surprisingly they are universally classed as ‘white’. The cat is also small and near. But its diet is far from neutral. The cat is a carnivore, its diet is red and so its meat may be categorised as red. But perhaps the two most characteristic foods of the domestic cat are milk and fish—both ‘white’ foods par excellence. So it may also be characterised as ‘white’. Yet more ambiguity surrounding the cat. No wonder it can be put in the same category as the chicken one minute and thrown out the next (by GA above).

But there is another link between cat and chicken. Not only do cats eat milk and fish, they also eat something else that is white—chicken. There is a saying, ‘Never put the kit to watch your chickens’ (quoted in Currah 1972 p75). Looked at in this way chicken is seen as cat-food, and cat-food is definitely not for human consumption. In general we seem concerned not to overlap food categories. We eat animals, so we don’t eat animals which eat animals. We tend not to eat those vegetables which animals eat.

But the food of the cat, like the cat itself, seems to be especially taboo. My mother, for instance, would never eat coley. She said that it was a fish only suitable for cats, not people. Similarly, tinned cat-food, particularly Kit-e-Kat has passed into folk lore and rumour as a suitable food for aliens. When I was at school fifteen years ago the following rhyme was popular:

‘Pal meat for dogs, Kit-e-Kat for wogs.’ Another version, picked up by a child on a visit to Bradford runs: “Lumb Lane! Lumb Lane! With rags instead of window pane. Where they sleep twelve in a bed, And live on Kit-e-Kat and bread.’ (quoted in Scott 1971 p186)

The story is still current and was repeated on the notorious Labour Party political broadcast on the National Front (7/12/77).

Levi-Strauss notes examples of a myth amongst the north western Canadian Indians where a prince visits the kingdom of the salmon and is told that under no circumstances must he eat the same food as the salmon, but he must eat the fish themselves—even though they appear in human form. (Levi-Strauss 1967:32. Cf Levi-Strauss 1970:83 & n6 p97). On the pattern of this myth we should not eat the same food as the cat (i.e. chicken) but the cat itself even if, as a pet, it appears in near-human form. Of course it is quite illegitimate to apply an episode of one myth from one culture to a problem taken from another, but in some ways the Tsimshian myth and the English rumour appear to express similar concerns.

Time and space do not permit more than a cursory glance at another possible link between cat and chicken—in the linguistic dimension. Both cat and chicken have a certain amount of linguistic ambiguity about them; indeed 'chicken' originally just meant 'young bird' (probably cognate with 'cock', a 'male bird') and the ‘real’ name of the chicken seems to be 'barn-door fowl'. There may be one significant link between and chicken which is worth mentioning; both of them have a related with a sexual connotation. 'Pussy' is a diminutive term for cat which can also mean pubic hair or vagina (cf Mrs Slocum in Are You Being Served?), whilst 'cock' refers not only to any man as in 'watch'er cock’ but also specifically means the penis (which is a little odd since most birds don't have a penis at all). There seems little point in pushing this particular connection any further, but in passing it is of interest to note that apropos the cat-rabbit-chicken connection the original name of the rabbit was 'coney' pronounced cunny as in bunny and this is almost homophonous with ‘cunt’.

Summary of the Argument So Far

I now propose to summarise the arguments so far and to test my conclusions by reference to the other members of sets 4 and 5 of the rumour structure.

1) Following Leach, sexual relations, parts of the (rural) world, and animals were assigned to one of four categories depending on their distance from self. Leach suggests that these dimensions of categorisation are homologous so that just as ‘sister’ is a category with whom sex is forbidden, ‘pet’ is a category of which eating is forbidden. This can hardly be said to ‘explain’ the food taboo surrounding pets, but the link between sex and food is well known, and well-nigh universal. Further exploration of the relationship between the two may well show why the pet is taboo to eat but not to touch when alive.

Now the cat is obviously a pet and therefore subject to food taboos. So is the dog, and the same taboo applies. The other elements in set 4 are not pets—with the possible exception of the horse which comes very close to being a pet for many people today. Horses tend to live in those parts of a farm nearest to the house; sometimes the stable is actually contiguous with the house, being built on as a kind of outhouse sharing a common wall with the main house. To the extent that the horse is thought of as a pet it is inedible, but the English are aware that other, apparently civilised, people eat horse meat as a matter of course. The presence of horse in the rumour is not surprising, but I would be surprised if it appeared frequently.

This leaves cat-food and rats. Cat-food is different from all of the other elements of this set in that it had no independent existence as an animal before it was considered as a food. I will deal with it in more detail later. Rats generally belong to the category ‘pest’, a highly anomalous category which cuts across the other categories in table two. Many pests, for instance rabbits and pigeons, can also be ‘game’ in some circumstances and ‘pets’ in others. The rat can also be kept as a pet or even as a working animal (in the laboratory). As a pest it is heavily taboo-laden, but as pet or working animal its links with cat, dog and horse are apparent though not particularly strong.

2) I then attempted to show that the eating prohibitions on the category are not quite as solid as they appear to be at first sight that ‘pet’ is itself an intermediate category between ‘edible’ and ‘inedible. If this is so it helps to explain the existence and persistence of the rumour. The same remarks might well apply to the category ‘pest’, some members of which—notably the rabbit and pigeon—may be eaten under certain circumstances.

3) Next I attempted to demonstrate that just as pets were not unambiguously inedible so chickens are not unambiguously edible. Chicken falls into the category of ‘white’ meat rather than ‘red’ and because one of the distinguishing features of white is its nearness to the house it is more dangerous than red. I also suggested why other ‘white’ animals such as the pig were not also included in set 5.

There seems little reason for the inclusion of lamb or ‘meat in set 5 I take both of these to be ‘red’ and therefore as safe to eat as any animal flesh can be. So, rare as their appearance in the rumour is, they do not seem to appear for the same reasons as the chicken.

4) I then turned my attention to the link between cat and chicken. I first followed up the statement made by several of my informants that cats, like chicken, had white meat. I suggested that this was because of its diet. It eats fish and drinks milk. The dog, on the other hand, has red meat. It eats red meat—‘meaty chunks’, ‘marrowbone jelly’ etc.—and drinks water which is presumably neutral.

But, the dog has never been overtly linked with the chicken in any version of the rumour which I have heard. Whenever any specific substitution with dog has been named it has involved lamb or ‘meat’—both of which are also red. The horse I would also expect to have red meat (I calculate that it has a modulus of about 6 or 7 on the basis of calculations performed like those in part two)—slightly redder than a sheep and slightly less than a cow. It has been linked with ‘meat’ in a couple of versions. The only animal, apart from the cat, to be specifically linked with the chicken is the rat. According to ML the rat is white’ and so its substitution is not entirely discordant.

5) I then noted the ambiguity of the cat; some people characterise it as red, some white. The crucial factor is the way they look at its diet. But there is one more element to note the cat is well known as a chicken eater. That makes chicken ‘cat-food’—a particularly taboo category. In general we seem keen to keep our food and the food of animals, particularly taboo animals, distinct. Animals may eat food which we will not eat, like scraps, pig-swill; or even horse-meat. They may not eat food which we wish to eat.

Why this is so is obscure to me, and I have only stated it, not demonstrated or explained it. But it leads to quite a useful hypothesis for my purposes: chicken and cat are confused in the rumour because chicken is cat-food. So, since rats and chickens are also confused, chickens ought to be rat-food as well. I must confess that until I had formulated it thus it had not occurred to me that rats might eat chickens. But I asked around and several people gave ‘rats’ as one of their answers to the question, ‘What animals eat chickens?’

The dog was also given in answer to the above question. But as I noted above even if there are latent links between dog and chicken, the only specific ones are between dog and lamb or meat (I’ll ignore ‘meat’ for the moment—it may well be lamb or mutton anyway). I doubt whether dogs actually eat many lambs nowadays, but they will certainly chase them and even kill them. It may be significant that the only breed of dog named in connection with the rumour is the Alsatian (R16, R17, R23) which is popularly and frequently compared with the wolf; and there is no doubt about the sheep being wolf-food (cf ‘A wolf in sheep’s clothing’, ‘Cry wolf’ etc.).

Only the horse doesn’t appear to fit this part of the argument. There is no reason that 1 am aware of for considering either chicken or lamb as horse-meat. Gratifying evidence that I might at least be on the right track came after I had formulated this particular approach when GA told me R21—the version which names cat-food (almost certainly Kit-e-Kat) rather than cat as the substitute meat. It is also interesting to note that the empty cans play exactly the same role in this version as the carcases of the cats do in R1 and R4.

6) Lastly I suggested that there might also be linguistic links between cat and chicken. There are no other obvious links of this kind between other members of the sets.

Relative Frequencies of Elements

There is one more thing to be accounted for. If the hypotheses about rumour transmission which I have proposed in appendix one are correct, then the relative frequencies of the elements in each set are not random, but culturally determined. It therefore becomes necessary to account far them. I do not think that I have collected enough versions to have great confidence in the specific values of these frequencies, but I suspect that the relative values are reasonably correct. For this, and other, reasons I will not attempt a quantitative explanation here, merely a qualitative one.

The relative frequencies, expressed in percentages, are: cat 48%, dog 26%, rat 15%, horse 7%, cat-food 4%; chicken 70%, lamb 15%, meat 15%. It can be seen that cat is nearly as frequent as all the other elements in set 4 added together. Whilst both cat and dog are categorised as pets, cats are usually considered to be ‘wilder’ than dogs. Dog is ‘friend of man’, cat is ‘companion of man’—but only whilst it suits him. This opposition is stated in folklore; ‘The tongue of the cat is poison, the tongue of the dog cures’ and ‘The dog wakes three times to watch over his master, the cat wakes three times to strangle him’ (quoted in Currah 1972 p75 ff).

It is the wildness of the cat, the way it ‘walks alone’ which makes it the pre-eminent member of the set. It has often been said to me that it is just because there are so many stray cats about that unscrupulous restaurateurs can catch and cook them. This explanation ignores the large number of stray dogs which exist and shows that the argument is based on prejudice rather than reason. So cat is pre-eminent because it is a pet. and the most anomalous of pets.

The next most common element is the other pet in the set—the dog. This is in accordance with the arguments just given. The differences between dog, rat, and horse are not great enough to be of any real significance in a sample of this size. Nevertheless I would be surprised if horse turned out to be as common as dog. Indeed it may well be the presence of dog which is largely responsible for the presence of horse. The main context in which horse and dog are intimately connected is the hunt—a ritual pursuit and slaughter of game (anomalous) animals such as the fox or the stag. Since they are associated in this context with anomalous food, their connection in the rumour (see R19) is not surprising. But the dog has far more direct links with chicken and lamb and so should be more frequent; as indeed it is.

Rat occurs less frequently than cat partly because it figures in fewer correspondences with the chicken than the cat does and partly because it is a less frequently observed animal than the cat or dog. It only occurs in connection with chicken; (except the rather jokey R26) whereas dog has general links with both chicken and lamb. On the other hand the rat is a more ‘dangerous’ animal than the dog. On balance I would expect the dog to keep its lead, but only just.

Kit-e-Kat is the least frequent of all. Its presence is a little surprising in the first place since it is not an animal, but a prepared mixture of dubious origin. It may be significant that this version was told at school, and at about the same time as I heard the Kit-e-Kat rhyme quoted above—also heard at school. There was a lot of talk about tinned cat-foods about then and I would be surprised to find a current cat-food version and also surprised if the cat-food frequency ever became higher than it is now

As far as set 5 is concerned chicken is overwhelmingly more common than the other two members. I have given reasons for its inclusion, but apart from mentioning the rules about touching bones I have given little reason for the inclusion of either lamb or meat. The presence of lamb may well be largely due to that of the dog in set 4. Lamb is dog-food and so may appear when dog appears. ‘Meat’ is an ambiguous term, indeed it is its very ambiguity which gives it potency in the rumour. ‘Meat’ may well be the same as lamb (see R18)and is certainly less frequent in appearance than chicken. The differences between meat and lamb will probably never be great, but I expect meat to have the edge.

Missing Elements

A severe test of my conclusions is set by the absence, from both sets, of animals which might be expected to be present. Why are other ‘white’ animals missing from set 5? The simple answer to this question is that I don’t know. The two which are most worrying are duck and veal, both of which are quite commonly served in restaurants—though not perhaps so commonly in foreign restaurants. This may in fact be the reason, but until I’ve done research into the frequency of different meats on foreign restaurant’s menus it doesn’t entirely convince me.

As far as set 4 is concerned the most notable exception is the fox. It is an anomalous animal—part game, part pest, sometimes even tamed as a pet. Of the six people I asked the question, ‘What animals eats chickens?’ only one failed to mention foxes and three mentioned the fox first, before either humans or cats and dogs. This link has recently been made explicit in a Kentucky fried chicken commercial (transmitted on 20/10/77) which featured a cartoon fox and the slogan, ‘the only chicken worth chasing’.

I think that the only reason why I haven’t recorded a version with a fox in it is because of its relative unfamiliarity in an urban environment. All the other members of set 4 (except the horse which is exceptional in other respects) are common in towns. However this is changing. Foxes are becoming quite a common sight on the outskirts of cities and one was even reported in the next street to me in Ealing in November 1977. Because of this I will be extremely surprised if a fox version doesn’t crop up at some time in the future.

There don’t seem to be any other serious contenders for membership of set 4 (with the possible exception of the rabbit - see above p3). The mouse is too small and doesn’t eat chicken. The badger, a chicken-eater according to one informant, is too uncommon as is the wolf. These, and possibly others (such as dog-food), might crop up from time to time, but I would expect their frequency to be low.

Conclusions of Part One

In this part I have demonstrated that the categories edible and inedible as applied to members of sets 4 and 5 are not quite as secure and unambiguous as might at first sight be supposed. I have shown that what appears to be a simple problem (I certainly thought it was) is in fact very complex one and that there is no one simple answer. I have indicated in general terms why the rumour has the components it has and the nature of the links between them, and why the observed frequencies and omissions are not totally surprising.

However it must be said that I have been far from successful in answering my primary question, ‘Why is cat substituted for chicken?’ Firstly, when I looked at animals as markers of distance I initially followed, and then modified, Leach. Yet this is an urban rumour—at least in the versions I have collected. It may well also exist in rural districts, but the only one of my informants who was living in the country when he heard it was GA—and his version (R21) was hardly typical.

I have made some play on this urban nature in my explanations of the relative frequencies and the absence of the fox. So it is probably far from legitimate to use rural perceptions of distance as categories in which to isolate animals. A town dweller’s set of distance categories would probably be more like:


This is obviously much more complicated than anything I have considered here and its use might well lead to very different conclusions.

Secondly, I have left one question unanswered - why do we equate an animal and its food? I have suggested that a large part of the reason why cat is substituted for chicken is that chicken is cat-food. If this is so then why is not cat-food substituted for chicken as in R21?

Thirdly, I have relied heavily on Leach’s theory of taboo. This is mainly because I know of nothing better—but I have some serious reservations about this theory which I shall briefly discuss in part two.

Finally, despite my criticisms above, I suggest that the work is too facile. The success of the essay seems to depend ultimately on my linguistic skills. If I can present enough information in a cunning enough way then the quickness of the word may deceive the mind. It's hardly science!

PART TWO—Some theoretical considerations

The Nature of Symbols

In the course of this essay I have had to make certain judgements and hypotheses about the nature and manipulation of symbols. There are two extreme views about the nature of symbols, both of which I have had to reject. For Radcliffe-Brown, 'symbol' is coincident with ‘meaning':

Whatever has meaning is a symbol and the meaning is whatever is expressed by the symbol. (Radcliffe-Brown 1939 p143).

Whatever else the semiotic approach to symbolism has done, it has certainly shown that it is not possible to ascribe simple meaning to a symbol. If symbols do have meaning then that meaning is not simple.

The opposite extreme is the position adopted by the 'semiotic' anthropologists such as Levi-Strauss and Leach. Leach (1976) writes that A is a symbol when

...A stands for B and there is no intrinsic prior relationship between A and B, that is to say A and B belong to different cultural contexts. (p14).

For the semioticists the symbol is like the linguistic sign whose meaning depends only on its context and its relations with that context. According to Saussure, the founder of structural linguistics, there are two kinds of relationship which are of importance. The first is the contrast between different signs which might replace each other in a given context, the other is the relationship between signs which might combine in a sequence. The first sort of relationship is called paradigmatic; the second syntagmatic.

They operate at all levels of linguistic analysis and the structural relations are essentially the same at each level. For instance, the phoneme /p/ in English is defined paradigmatically by its difference from other phonemes which could replace it in a given context such as /-it/ (so pit, sit, tit, etc.) or /-late/ (so plate, slate, etc, but not *tlate).

Syntagmatically /p/ is defined by the way it combines with other phonemes, thus it can precede or follow any vowel, and its combinations with other consonants are firmly restricted (e.g. in a syllable /p/ can precede /t/ as in apt, but may not follow it—*atp).

Similar structural relations are found at the levels of morphology and  syntax. For example, the syntagmatic relations which define he frightened allow it to be followed by a dog, Humphrey, the man on the elephant’s back, etc. but not by Gorgonzola, arithmetic, the iceberg, etc. These syntagmatic relations implicitly define a set of paradigmatic elements which might follow he frightened.

According to structural linguistics meaning is produced by the choice of one element at the expense of others. Saussure himself wrote,

The ultimate law of language is, dare we say, that nothing can ever reside in a single term. This is a direct consequence of the fact that linguistic signs are unrelated to what they designate, and that therefore a cannot designate anything without the aid of b and vice versa..., (quoted in Culler 1976 p52).

I have found the concept of syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations very helpful in my attempt to display the structure of the rumour (see below, appendix one). But I have not used ‘structuralist’ technique in my subsequent analysis. I have instead concentrated on the individual symbols rather their purely relational characteristics. Whilst I have tried to avoid a simple ascription of ‘meaning’ to each symbol, I find it impossible to subscribe to the view that a symbol is merely a form of linguistic sign. I have two main reasons for this: the ‘multivocalic’ nature of the symbol, and its apparent ‘naturalness’.

The Multivocalic Symbol

The linguistic sign is a bipartite quantity, being composed of the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’ with no intrinsic relationship between the two parts. I gave Leach’s definition of a symbol above and it can be seen that he follows the definition of the linguistic sign quite closely. But, as I hope I have already shown in this essay, a symbol does not have a simple bipartite structure. One ‘signifier’ may stand for many ‘signifieds’, and vice versa. So ‘cat’ as signifier may stand for’ pet’, ‘tame’, ‘wild’, ‘white’, ‘red’, etc.

I prefer to follow the lead Turner gave when he wrote,

Indeed, single symbols may represent the points of interconnection between separate planes of classification. ... This leads me to the problem of the ‘polysemy’ or multivocality of many symbols, the fact that they possess many significations simultaneously. One reason for this may be found in their ‘nadal’ function with reference to intersecting sets of classification. (Turner 1969 p37)

He then goes on to say that if one looks at a symbol in isolation it appears multivocal, but if it is considered in terms of the classifications which are appropriate to the context of the symbol,

...then each of the senses allocated to them appears as the exemplification of a single principle. In binary opposition on each plane each symbol becomes univocal. (p38)

It will be obvious that this is precisely the approach which I felt compelled to adopt with respect to the central problem of this essay. But I have two reservations about the above passage. Firstly, I am not convinced by his geometrical analogy. What is a plane of classification? A plane requires two variables to define it, and a better analogy would surely be to talk of a dimension of classification, the symbol being the point of intersection of two or more dimensions of classification.

This would certainly be more in keeping with the concept of simple binary oppositions which Turner appears to accept. But this is my second caveat. I am far from happy with the concept of binary oppositions as used by Levi-Strauss and his followers.

The Comparison of Symbols

The use of binary oppositions has often been criticised, but it cannot be denied that we need some way of comparing symbols. The ‘method’ of Levi-Strauss has been to try and discover simple binary oppositions between pairs of symbols, and his work has been far from unconvincing in its general application. There does seem to be a universal human tendency to oppose pairs of symbols, though whether this is due to innate structures of the human mind or the on/off binary nature of synapses I am not competent to judge.

But on closer inspection some of these binary oppositions seem far from simple. For instance the pair birth-death are usually thought of as opposites. But are they? In birth one emerges from the mother’s womb, at death one doss not return there. Of course birth and death can be considered to be the extremes of one particular dimension of classification (entry into life-exit from life) but in other possible dimensions they might be classified together (as ‘natural’ rather than ‘artificial’, for instance) and in other dimensions only one of them might appear (e.g. ‘birth’ might be included in a hypothetical classification of ‘exits from the body’—vomiting, spitting and ejaculating might be others. It is unlikely that ‘death’ would be included in a classification of ‘entries into the body’—though burial might be a symbolic attempt to make it so).

But even if we tentatively allow the term ‘opposition’ for such pairs as day-night, birth-death, black-white etc there still seems to be a problem. In his analysis of the myth of Asdiwal Levi-Strauss (1953) distinguishes the following ‘oppositions’: Mother-Daughter, Elder-Younger, Downstream-Upstream, West-East, South-North, (p14.) Leach notes in an editorial footnote (note 8 p 44 ibid) that the French word ‘opposition’

... has been consistently rendered as...English ‘opposition’ even though in places it. might. have been more elegant to write...’contrast’ or ‘antithesis’ for opposition

Whatever we think of the others in the list, I can see no possible Justification for calling Downstream-Upstream or Elder-Younger oppositions. They are distinctions. Even Source-Mouth would not be an opposition in terms of a river’s course, merely an extreme distinction; Downstream-Upstream is a purely relative relationship.

But Levi-Strauss wants to go further than this; he wishes to talk of ‘greater’ or ‘lesser’ oppositions. Again in the myth of Asdiwal he claims that the Nass version of the myth is ‘weaker’ than the Skeena version because the Skeena oppositions are greater. Since the terms ‘opposition’ and ‘greater’ have no precision he feels able to maintain this position even when the facts appear to be against him. For instance, at the start of each version two women appear. In the Skeena version they are a widowed woman and her widowed daughter, in the Nass version they are a married woman and her unmarried sister. Whilst the mother-daughter pair might well form a ‘greater opposition’ than the sister-sister pair it does not seem possible to assert that widow-widow is a ‘greater’ opposition than married-unmarried. Yet this is precisely what Levi-Strauss does, referring to the first pair, “being brought together by a more radical event(the double simultaneous widowhood)” (p35 ibid). It seems that Levi-Strauss can change the rules whenever he wants to—not that this is the first time he has been accused of doing that (see Leach 1974:117and Kirk 1970:43ff).

I think that it is possible to bring some degree of precision to this kind of argument, but in order to do so three quantities must be assigned to the symbols under consideration; modulus, sign, and origin. I can best illustrate what I mean by taking an example from the field of numbers and considering, for instance, ‘2’ as a symbol. Now ‘2’ can be considered as a member of various dimensions of classification. It is an integer (a whole number) and thus is in the same set as 3, 4, 5, ... and a distinction can be made between ‘2’ and ‘3’. But 2½ is not an integer and so a distinction cannot be made between ‘2’ and ‘’ in the dimension of classification of integers. But both ‘2’ and ‘2½’ are natural numbers and in this dimension of classification (from now on I shall simply refer to a ‘dimension’) a distinction between them is possible. This leads to Rule I:


Symbols may only be compared along one dimension of classification at a time. Both symbols must appear in this dimension before any comparison can be valid.

It should be noted that what is being compared, in the case of a distinction, is the distance from a common origin. In the case of natural numbers the most ‘natural’ and convenient origin is the number ‘0’—zero. As is well known, Western mathematics made a great leap forward after the importation of zero from the Arabs. So Rule II is:


Before any symbols can be compared in a dimension of classification, a convenient and culturally ‘natural’ origin must be located in that dimension.

We are now in the position of being able to compare distinctions. We can say that the distinction between ‘2’ and ‘2002’ is greater than the distinction between ‘2’ and ‘2½’. Once an origin has been assigned we are also in a position to be able to determine whether a genuine opposition exists or not. ‘-2’ is also a number in the field of natural numbers and is the opposite of ‘+2’ (‘2’ should really be written as ‘+2’, but the + sign is usually omitted).

Each of these numbers is the same ‘distance’ from the origin, but in different directions. This I call a true opposition. ‘-2002’ is also opposite to ‘+2’, but they are not the same distance from the origin. This I call a distinct opposition. ‘-2002’ and ‘+2002’ also form a true opposition, and we can say that it is a greater opposition than that between’-2’ and ‘+21’.

One last thing remains; the question of terminology. I propose to use the mathematical term modulus to describe what I have called ‘distance from the origin’. So the modulus of ‘+2’ is ‘2’ and the modulus of ‘-2’ is also ‘2’. The mathematical way of writing the modulus of ‘a’ is to put |a|. So |-2| = |+2| = 2. The quality of ‘plusness’ or 'minusness’ is called sign in mathematics. There are obvious disadvantages in adopting this term in the context of symbols, in that it may be confused with the linguistic sign. Unfortunately I can think of nothing better, and so will keep it for the present at least; the context should make the meaning clear in every case.

We are now in a position to give formal definitions of the various quantities mentioned:

1 ) Two symbols form an opposition in a dimension of classification when they have the same modulus and opposite sign. (B&C or A&D below)

2) Two symbols form a distinct opposition in a dimension of classification when the have the same modulus and opposite sign. (A&C, A&E, B&D, B&E)

3) Two symbols form a distinction in a dimension of classification when they have different modulus and the same sign. (A&B, D&C, D&E)

This is illustrated graphically below:


          E       C                D                                   A                B

|       |       |       |       |       |       |       |       |       |       |       |       |

-6      -5      -4      -3      -2      -1      0        +1     +2     +3     +4     +5     +6


We can also say that C&B form a greater opposition than A&D, and that D&C form a greater distinction than C&E. The comparison of distinct oppositions is more tricky—it is probably best done by adding the moduli of each pair and then comparing the totals. So comparing A&C with B&E we would have |A| + |C| = 2 + 4 = 6, and |B| + |E| = 4 + 5 = 9. So B&E form a greater distinct opposition than A&C.

One more point may be made. Most dimensions of classification are finite in extent and symbols may be located at either extreme of a particular dimension. This gives us two more terms which may be useful:

4) If two symbols are located at the extremes of a dimension of classification, and one of them is situated at the origin, they an extreme distinction.

5) If two symbols are located at the extremes of a dimension of classification, and an origin is situated mid-way between them they form an extreme opposition.

I will now attempt to illustrate the above arguments with reference to some specific symbols, for instance ‘man’ and ‘woman’ considered as symbols in the dimension of ‘gender’. It is possible to imagine a genderless being, and this has been done from time to time in mythology. This neuter being represents our point of origin in this dimension, a point of zero gender. It is now possible to assign sign and modulus ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in this dimension. It seems reasonable to give them the same modulus, |man| = |woman| = g(ender). It is also reasonable to give them opposite, and arbitrary, sign so we may write ‘man’ = -g and ‘woman’ = +g (or vice versa).

To this extent the couplet man-woman form a true opposition in the dimension of gender, since they have the same modulus, but opposite sign. In order to test this conclusion I will consider other possible members of the dimension ‘gender’.

It is possible for gender to be symbolically diminished or augmented—Eskimo Nell might be an example of augmented female gender! A castrated man is usually considered to be sexually diminished; that is to say, the modulus of the symbol ‘eunuch’ in the dimension of gender is less than that of ‘man’ ( we can write this as, |eunuch|<|man|). So it is not possible simply to oppose ‘eunuch’ and ‘woman’, because they have opposite sign in this dimension they also have different modulus (|eunuch| <|woman|) so they form a distinct opposition.

However it is possible to envisage diminished female gender too, an example might well be those mythical Amazons who cut off one breast—supposedly to be able to draw a bow better. If we tentatively assert that |Amazon| = |eunuch| then the pair Amazon-eunuch form a true opposition. Furthermore it is now legitimate to say that man-woman form a greater opposition than Amazon-eunuch in the dimension of gender.

One final example from the dimension of gender will be considered. In many myths an androgynous being figures prominently. An androgyne has both male and female gender and is thus neuter in the dimension of gender. This can be seen if we represent |man| as -g and |woman| as +g. Then ‘androgyne’ = (-g) + (+g) = 0. So in the dimension of gender the androgyne, like the asexual being, is located at the origin. We can therefore say that ‘androgyne’ = ‘neuter’ in the dimension of gender. But there is no reason to suppose that they will be equivalent in any other dimension. For instance, they will almost certainly be different in the dimension of sexuality where the neuter will presumably still be the origin in the new dimension, but the androgyne will now probably display a greater or lesser degree of sexuality. Thus it is not possible to make a wholesale comparison of these two (or indeed any other) symbols. They must be compared dimension by dimension.

Distinctions also need an origin if we are to make valid comparisons between distinct terms. Thus the distinction I considered earlier, elder-younger, needs further elaboration before it can be meaningful. Since elder and younger are reciprocal terms any comparison between them tends to be tautological. True comparison is only possible when we relate each to a common origin. In this case the most likely implied origin in the dimension of age is the moment of birth. There is nothing absolute about this, but it is likely to be made by most people in most societies. So now it is possible to make a distinction between the two terms—elder’ has a greater modulus, is further from the point of origin, than ‘younger’. But both have the same sign, they are both on the same side of the origin, and there is no way in which we can reasonably claim them to be opposed in this dimension.

In order to make an opposition we would have to locate an origin such that the two terms are on different sides of it. Suppose we designate such an origin, at age t such that ‘elder’ is at (t)+a and younger is at (t)-a. It now seems that elder-younger do form a true opposition since they now have the same modulus, a, and opposite sign. But it may well be possible to find an equally convincing and equally arbitrary origin somewhere else which would destroy this opposition. This is why any origin chosen must in some way be ‘natural’. It may be found in the natural environment or, more likely, in the society itself—in its myths or rituals or institutions—but it must not be arbitrarily designated by the analyst merely to make his theories work.

It can now be seen that Leach’s table (table two above) is an attempt to assign modulus in the dimension of distance from self. ‘Self’ is the origin of’ this particular dimension since it is no distance from itself. One of his main achievements in this paper is to show the importance of this dimension for a large number of symbols (strictly, categories not symbols—see further below) and also to show the homology that exists between various sets because they have similar moduli in this dimension. Tambiah (1969) found a similar set of correspondences in his study of a Thai village, though the common dimension of classification there was not simply ‘distance’ from self but more generally ‘spatial location with reference to self’ (particularly the head of the household).

But it does seem that Leach feels that the particular moduli he indicated are in some sense absolute and sufficient, since he recently (Leach 1977) used an inflated version of table two with the same four moduli (corresponding to house...farm...field...far) to attempt the solution of a different but related problem (that of profanity and obscenity). I must confess that he seemed to have to strain to get the facts to fit the theory. For instance the set ‘policeman...magistrate... earthly ruler...(God?)’ is supposed to be homologous with all the others in table two. But what about the court of appeal? The House of Lords? The discriminations are not fine enough here, just as they weren’t when I was considering red and white animals.

So to summarise, if we are to make valid comparisons between symbols we must compare them dimension by dimension—at least until some method of comparing them wholesale is discovered. We must distinguish distinctions and oppositions, and we must make an attempt to assign modulus, sign and origin to a group of symbols before we start comparisons. Leach’s work is a notable step in that direction. Finally, binary oppositions do exist, but they are far from universal.

The Arbitrariness of Symbols

One more legacy of the semiological view of symbols has been the assertion of their arbitrary nature. Partly, no doubt, this has been a reaction against the ‘universalist’ theories of the symbol such as those of Jung et al. These tried to assign a ‘meaning’ to a symbol and then show that this symbol-meaning pair was valid throughout the world. This been demonstrated to be false far too often for such theories to command any respect amongst anthropologists today. But it is not necessary to go to the other extreme and deny any intrinsic ‘meaning’ to a symbol, to deny the tendency of some symbols to operate in similar ways in different cultures.

The classificatory view of symbols developed here treads some middle ground between the two positions. Because a symbol is defined as the intersection of different dimensions of classification, and because in practice a specific object will be classified only in several of a finite number of possible ways there is always the possibility of similarities between symbols in different cultures. Of course, even within one society different members of that society will make slightly different classifications. Thus I discovered some people who put cat into the ‘white meat’ category and some who put it in the ‘red meat’ category. Even within a small and reasonably homogeneous sample this symbol, ‘cat’, has slightly different ‘meanings’.

Both symbol and context matter of course. The dimensions of classification are latent within the symbol; it is only in its relationships with its context that one or more of these dimensions will become specific. Nevertheless there is a tendency for both symbols and contexts to recur in different parts of the world. Jung and his followers have pointed to enough examples to demonstrate that. Where similar symbols have similar values in similar contexts in different societies it is likely that similar classifications are being made in those societies.

In this respect my conclusions seem to accord with the work of Mary Douglas. She too has denied the complete arbitrariness of symbols, at least with respect to bodily symbols. If classifications are made on the basis of the type of society then similar societies will have similar classifications. This means that, subject to natural and other constraints (‘cat’ will not be a symbol in a society which is unaware of its existence) similar symbols will be found in similar societies. (Douglas 1973:11-12)

If I have understood her correctly Mary Douglas also claims that ‘weak grid’ people do not respond well to public symbols. This appears to be because public symbols are the points of intersection of different dimensions of public classifications. The weak grid person has difficulty apprehending these, as his own classifications are more private and idiosyncratic. If I’m right the weak grid person will be just as able to manipulate and comprehend symbols as his strong grid counterpart, but these symbols will also be private and idiosyncratic —what Leach calls ‘nonce’ symbols (Leach 1976 p12). Unfortunately ignorance does not permit me to go any further in this direction at present.


I have so far considered ‘symbols’ and ‘dimensions of classification’, but there is an intermediate quantity which must also be taken into account—the category. A category is a function of values in several different dimensions of classification which are brought together to form what seems to be the common working unit of classification. People seem to be able to manipulate values in the relevant dimensions almost unconsciously. I give here a tentative analytical explanation of how I think certain objects (potentially edible beasts and birds) are assigned to one or other of two specific categories, ‘red meat’ and ‘white meat’. These particular categories appear to be functions of three dimensions: ‘distance from self’, ‘size’, and ‘colour of diet’.

The process may be something like this: firstly animals are assigned modulus according to their ‘distance’ from the origin—self, in this case. I take table nine as my guide in this assignment and derive the following (relative) values: |dog| = 1 (house); |cat| = |chicken| = |pig| = |veal calf| = |tame rabbit| = |rat| = 2 (yard); |sheep| = |cow| = 3 (pasture); |stag| = |wild rabbit| = 4 (country); |wild pig| = 5 (far).

A few points need to be made about these assignments. Some animals are thought to wander from their proper place. This in itself makes them anomalous and dangerous and it also make it difficult to assign modulus to them. I have set the modulus of ‘cat’ at 2 to try and account for wandering. I have also given the rat a modulus of 2 because although it lives at 3 or even 4, it wanders as far as 1.

We next assign modulus in the dimension of ‘size’: |mouse| = 0; |rat| = 1; |cat| = |chicken| = |rabbit| = 2; |pig| = |calf| = |sheep| = 3; |cow| = |stag| = 4. I have assigned mouse to the origin of this dimension (size of potentially edible animals) because it seems to be the smallest animal which might conceivably be eaten. Again, some of the values are extremely tentative - trying to determine the size of ‘dog’ is like trying to answer the question, ‘How long is a piece of string?’ but I have borne in mind that the only dog specifically mentioned in the rumour is an Alsatian. If we now add the two moduli we get:

Table Ten










tame rabbit, chicken, rat

veal calf, pig

wild rabbit, sheep


wild pig, stag

The last factor to be taken into account is diet. ‘Red diet’ (meat) and ‘white diet’ (milk and fish) seem to form a true opposition in this dimension, with ‘neutral diet’ (plants and water) as the origin. So if we assign |red diet| = |white diet| = 2 then we must add +2, -2, or 0 as appropriate to each animal. We get:

Table eleven











veal calf, rat

tame rabbit, chicken


wild rabbit, sheep, dog, cat


wild pig, stag

Comparison with table one shows quite a good it between the two. Note that ‘dog’ has now moved over into the ‘red’ category where it should be, and that ‘cat’ appears in both ‘red’ and ‘white’ depending on whether it is thought of as having a red diet (+2) or a white diet (-2). I’m not quite sure what dietary modifier should be applied to ‘rat’ so I’ve left it where it was. Further questioning of my informants would doubtless refine the table further.

Two points need to be made. Firstly, categories cannot be simply opposed or compared with precision. They are too complex for that. But there may be relationships between categories. Thus whilst ‘red meat’ and ‘white meat’ are not in any way opposed, they are mutually exclusive. A thing can be in one or the other, but not in both. Unfortunately things don’t always seem to know the rules. ‘Cat’ appears in both categories, and even though people tend to stress one at the expense of the other, they seem to be aware that things are not really so simple.

‘Red meat’ and ‘white meat’ are categories concerned with the status of potentially edible animals. If an animal defies categorisation and insists on being in both at once it is anomalous in this respect, and must be tabooed as food. This kind of anomaly is probably a more common cause of taboo than Leach’s suppression of intermediate categories.

The second point is that the above exercise is not intended to be any more than an indication of the sort of thing I think must be done if concepts such as ‘taboo’ are ever to have a degree of precision. I am therefore not going to attempt to justify the procedures I used any further. Indeed I’m by no means certain that they are correct. I’m also not suggesting that people think in this precise way. My only claim is that some such analytical procedure is necessary to lay bare the classifications and categorisations which people use.

My definition of a category was not totally dissimilar from my definition of a symbol, but a symbol is more specific, being (approximately) a point of intersection of several different dimensions, whereas a category is a region defined by the application of several different dimensions as above.

It is therefore possible to have different values (degrees of modulus) within a category—one animal may be more or less ‘red’ than another. It is this, coupled with the complex nature of the categories themselves, which makes their comparison so hazardous.


As far as terminology is concerned I have followed Radcliffe-Brown (1939:134) in using the spelling ‘taboo’, reserving ‘tabu’ for the specifically Polynesian practices. I have not adopted his preferred term, ‘ritual avoidance’, mainly because it seems to beg too many questions (cf Steiner’s criticisms—Steiner 1956:119 ff).

Steiner himself notes that the term ‘taboo’ has been given several different meanings:

Taboo is concerned (1) with all the social mechanisms of obedience which have ritual significance; (2) with specific and restrictive behaviour in dangerous situations. ... (3) with the protection of individuals who are in danger, and (4) with the protection of society from those endangered—and therefore dangerous—persons. (ibid pp20-21)

This essay has mainly been concerned with the second sense—specific and restrictive behaviour in dangerous situations. With regard to dangerous situations (such as eating a stranger’s food) Steiner remarks:

Danger is narrowed down by taboo. A situation is regarded as dangerous: very well, but the danger may be a socially unformulated threat. Taboo gives notice that the danger lies not in the whole situation, but only in certain specified actions concerning it. ...the whole situation can be rendered free from danger by...avoiding the specified danger spots completely. (ibid pp146-147).

I suggest that this accords to a certain extent with the hypotheses I have put forward concerning the function of rumours.

Mary Douglas has shown (1966) the links between danger and classificatory anomaly, especially in her comments on the Lele (ibid p196 ff). She notes that all anomalous animals are prescribed as food for someone. But there are many kinds of anomaly, and many different taboos—why, for instance, are children allowed to eat flying squirrels, whilst adults are not; why are men allowed to eat chicken whilst women are not? (Similar differential prohibitions are also observed by the Karam of New Guinea—Bulmer 1967:190). It may be that a deeper analysis of the classifications made by these peoples might show why adopted these specific taboos, rather than other possible ones, are adopted.

Leach (1964) implies that that pets are tabooed as food (it is not, after all, forbidden to touch them) is that they are homologous with ‘sisters’ who are tabooed as sex objects. The relationship between sex and eating has been demonstrated by Levi-Strauss and a relationship between sex categories and food categories has also been shown by Tambiah (1969, especially p160 ff) and Bulmer (1967:187 ff), and this is obviously a profitable line for further inquiry. But much still needs to be done and there is a need for a greater degree of precision in individual cases.

Unfortunately, many of the theoretical ideas developed in this essay came as a result of writing part one. I should have gone back and tried to apply these ideas to the material of part one, instead of trying stretch Leach’s theory rather further than it was capable of going. Having said that it is extremely hazardous to try and compare categories, it is less than rigorous of me to have done just that in the main body of this essay. Sadly, time did not allow me to make the attempt; if I were to try and lay bare all the dimensions of classification latent in the categories and symbols considered in part one I would need to do a great deal more field work. One day I might attempt it.


In this part I have attempted to clarify some of the basic problems of ‘symbolic anthropology’ and have offered some extremely tentative solutions. Much of what I have said seems extremely muddled but I am hopeful that, with further refinement, the approaches I have suggested may prove profitable and may even introduce some degree of precision into this rather flamboyant part of anthropology. Not that I am opposing exuberance, but it must have firm base if it is not to float into the clouds. There is no anthropological definition of a symbol that I know of which comes anywhere near Thomas Merton’s:

The true symbol does not merely point to something else. It contains in itself a structure which awakens our consciousness to a new awareness of the inner meaning of life and of reality itself. A true symbol takes us to the centre of the circle, not to another point on the circumference. It is by symbolism that man enters affectively and consciously into contact with his own deepest self, with other men, and with God.’ (quoted in Campbell 1973)

One day perhaps, anthropology will be able to say all that, and more.


The rumour which provided the stimulus for this essay is just one of over twenty which I have collected. Each rumour has several variants, but the ‘restaurant’ rumour seems to be the most commonly known and I have collected far more versions of this one than of any other so far. Before discussing the structure and significance of this particular rumour there are a few general points which I wish to make.

With only one exception that I have come across folk rumours have not been seriously collected or studied, though there are occasional flippant references to them in works such as Cooper 1974. The exception is Edgar Morin (1971) whose book is more concerned with the effects of a specific rumour (about sex-slavery; I’ve collected a couple of versions of it myself), which almost literally ran riot, than with the rumour itself. So there is little or no prior work or corpus of rumours to go on.

All rumours are told as being true; typically the events portrayed happened to a ‘friend of a friend’ of the teller. Many rumours are concerned with sex, mutilation or death—or even all three. Many seem to be inter-dependent and it is unlikely that they could be analysed in isolation as I have done with the restaurant rumour—and even that probably needs to be related to the others to analyse it fully.

The systematic nature of the corpus of rumours makes a comparison with Levi-Strauss’s work on myth in Mythologiques. The subject matter of many myths  and rumours seems to be the same too. But there are definite differences between myth and rumour, particularly in the way they are told. Myth, at least if the anthropological literature is to be believed, is told both articulately and continuously. Myths, at least by the time they are written down, are coherent, literate and linear with developing story lines capable of being broken up into episodes or motifs by the analyst.

In complete contrast, rumours—at least as told to me—are short, incomplete, and often told almost incoherently. If ever verbal communication depended on ‘the space between words’, the tacit and assumed meanings behind the spoken broken phrases, then rumour does. Of course most of the versions I have collected were not told to me in ‘hot blood’. I have had to ask, ‘have you ever heard a story about a restaurant serving up a strange meat?’ or some such question. Sometimes the initial answer is negative; it takes a while for the rumour to be remembered. A look at appendix two will show that the most detail is usually remembered with the more recent versions. But even when a rumour is current and being told ‘as true’ there are many pauses and lacunae in the account.

I am very aware that when I write down the rumours I have been told they seem very short and flat and trivial—yet they are so widespread and their content is often far from trivial that I am sure that they are of great significance to the anthropologist. I am also very aware that in writing down these accounts I have solidified something which was fluid in the extreme. I have forced them all into a mould—worse, I have forced them all into the same mould; the mould of my prose. Film would be a much more appropriate medium than print for this kind of work; but until money grows on trees I shall have to continue on paper.

An examination of the examples shows that it is rare (indeed so far unknown) for all the links in the syntagmatic chain to be present in anyone version. I am fairly confident that I have got all of the syntagmatic links in the restaurant rumour, but I doubt if I have filled up all paradigmatic sets. Apart from those discussed in part one, ‘human flesh’ is an obvious possible candidate for set 4 (see L2 in appendix two). One of my basic assumptions is that the structure of the rumour survives even if some of the elements vary and some of the links are suppressed or re-expressed.

The absolute and relative frequencies of the various elements are given below:

Table 12—Set 2



















Table 13—set 4



















Table 14—set 5
















‘Bones’ appear in nine versions, 33% of the total, but in 75% of versions where set 6 is present.

At this point it is necessary to state some hypotheses about the transmission and transmutation of rumour. Assume the existence of a rumour R(ab) which is told by person ’a’ to person ‘b’ (for the moment I will ignore the question of origin, of who told the rumour to a). Now b can do anyone of several things. He may pass the rumour on to ‘c’ substantially unchanged, so that R(bc) ≈ R(ab). Or he may make substantial alterations, perhaps substituting one member of a paradigmatic set for another, perhaps suppressing or re-expressing one or more of the syntagmatic links. In this case R(ab) Ù R(bc) but R(bc) ≠ R(ab). The new version will be a transformation of the old, but will not be roughly identical with it. The third possibility is that all the links are suppressed by b. Then R(bc) will not exist, R(bc) = 0. If this happens often enough the rumour will die out—or at least become totally latent for a period.

What determines which of these possibilities will occur? I suggest that it is not a random matter, but depends mainly on the nature of R(ab) and also to a lesser extent on b himself. The more R(ab) ‘satisfies’ b, the more likely he is to pass it on to c. The term ‘satisfy’ is left deliberately vague here, but includes such factors as ‘makes sense’, ‘confirms prejudice’ ‘is plausible’ and so on. If R(ab) does not satisfy b sufficiently he will simply not tell it to anyone else.

If he finds it satisfactory in some respects, but not in others he will modify it to make it more satisfactory but always within the constraints laid down by the latent structure. Thus set 1 is frequently suppressed (or not re-invented). Lastly, if R(ab) satisfies b in almost every respect he will pass it on almost unchanged.

Now b’s criteria for ‘satisfaction’ will be at least partly socially determined, and if the rumour is r repeated often enough then the relative frequency of links and elements will provide an index of the society’s concerns. In the main body of this essay I have been considering rumour as a profitable subject for analysis. But it may well be that rumour will be found most useful by anthropologists as a diagnostic tool, particularly in complex societies. It should be possible to discover much about a society’s symbols and their relationships, and particularly their relative importance by studying the syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships revealed in rumour.

APPENDIX TWO—The Versions of the Rumour

The numbering of these versions is not in any way significant. At first I tried to set them out in such a way that they would progressively reveal more and more aspects of the rumour. But this plan quickly fell through and they are now more or less random, not even in the order in which I collected them.

I have not given the names of the restaurants involved for obvious reasons. I wrote to the public health inspector about R1 and R2 and he confirmed that there is no truth in either of them.

(R1) I heard this version myself about fifteen years ago, though I can’t remember who told me. A (specific) Chinese restaurant in Acton, the first in Acton to open, was said to be serving cats to its customers. This was discovered because cat carcases were found in the dustbins in the alleyway behind the restaurant. GSS also heard that this restaurant was supposed to be serving cats, but could remember no more details. SD heard that the restaurant had been closed down, but never knew why. (cf R24 and R25)

(R2) I also heard of a specific Chinese restaurant in Ealing which was supposedly prosecuted for serving cats. The restaurant in question changed ownership at this time (about seven years ago). GS and SS also heard this.

(R3) PT told me that in Westcliffe-on-Sea a specific Chinese restaurant was found to be using cats about 12 to 14 years ago. He thinks that some cat’s skins were discovered, but can’t be sure. He also claimed that the story appeared in the local press.

(R4) LS heard that a Chinese restaurant in Newcastle—she can’t remember which one—was prosecuted (?) for using cats in meat curry. This was about fifteen years ago and corpses were found in the dustbin—round the back of the restaurant(?). She thinks the story was in the local paper.

(R5) CG tells that some time before 1962—which was when she heard the story—a (specific) Chinese restaurant in Norwich was closed down. This was because they had been using cats.

(R6) GA, a Guyanan of Chinese descent now living in England, heard whilst living in Guyana that Chinese restaurants there served dogs which they bred specially for the purpose. She viewed the prospect of eating them with distaste

(R7) RP heard that a Chinese (?) restaurant in Greenford (?) used to serve cat instead of chicken. This was discovered by a diner whilst eating his meal, by noticing that the bones were (anatomically) wrong. A prosecution followed (?). This was about ten to fifteen years ago.

(R8) ME said that she had read in a local paper of a Chinese restaurant in Bath which was using cat instead of chicken.

(R9) GS heard that a large pub (which serves meals) in Uxbridge was going to be taken to court because they were using cats instead of chicken. They then paid a sum of money to the ‘right people’ (unspecified) and the charges were dropped. This was about eight to ten years ago.

(R10) ML heard that cats were being used in an unspecified Indian restaurant in Cambridge some twelve to fifteen years ago, whilst he was at university.

(R11) RJ was told by TM that an (unspecified) BBC film cameraman bought a portion of Kentucky fried chicken from an (unspecified) Colonel Sanders take-away. He thought that it was ‘off’ and sent the remains (no details given) to a public health analyst. The analyst wrote back (confirming that the meat was ‘off’?) and mentioned, almost in passing (sic), that he had thought that one of the bones had looked a little odd. On further examination it turned out to be a cat bone. This was told to RJ in June or July 1977. He was unsure, but assumed that a prosecution was supposed to be under way.

(R12) CP told me that about fourteen or fifteen years ago she heard that Chinese restaurants (in general) used cats instead of chicken—‘because they taste the same.’ She particularly remembers that this supposed similarity was stressed.

(R13) GS told me, in response to a remark I made about R12, that she had also heard that cats and chickens taste the same. She heard this in connection with an otherwise unremembered Chinese restaurant story.

(R14) CG was told by a male friend that someone (un-named) had got a Kentucky fried chicken bone caught in his throat. He went to hospital to get it removed. When they got it out they discovered that it was a rat bone. CG thinks the take-away shop was in London. She heard the tale about Christmas 1975.

(R15) PT was told this about four or five years ago by a friend of his who brought it back from the United States. A woman bought some Kentucky fried chicken one night. She took it home, but discovered that she wasn’t particularly hungry and didn’t finish it. Not wanting to waste it she put it in the ‘fridge. In the morning she took it out and started to eat it. But suddenly she noticed a rat bone in the ‘chicken’. At this she died of a heart attack. (See L3 for another American version of the rumour)

(R16) SR said that a Chinese restaurant in Canterbury was prosecuted for having an Alsatian in the ‘fridge. They said it was for the staff, but the judge did not believe them.

(R17) GSS heard about seven or eight years ago, from a friend, that an (unspecified or unremembered Indian restaurant in the Ealing area was ‘done’ for serving up dog. The story made an impression on them both and they used to joke about ‘Alsatian Biriani’—though GSS says that he does not remember an Alsatian being specifically named in the original story.

(R18) SR also stated that he heard that in Indian restaurants dog was substituted for lamb in a ‘meat curry’

(R19) GSS said that he had heard that ‘meat curry’ in an Indian restaurant would be made with dog or horse.

(R20) PT said that the meat in ‘meat curry’ might well be horse.

(R21) GA told me that about fifteen years ago in Doncaster a Chinese restaurant (actually the first one to open in the town) was said at his school to be serving up tinned cat-food (Kit-e-Kat) which they prepared and cooked in dustbin lids. This was discovered because the dustmen reported lots of tins in the dustbin. They reported this to the public health authorities and a prosecution followed.

(R22) AB was told, about two or three years ago, that a Chinese restaurant in Ealing had been closed down because it served rat instead of chicken. A friend of a friend had been there and he’d got a bone stuck in his throat. When he went to hospital they removed the bone and asked him what sort of meat he thought he’d been eating. He said chicken, but they told him it was a rat bone. AB drove past the restaurant a week later and it was still open.

(R23) C said that a Greek (?) restaurant in Liverpool was discovered to have the carcases of Alsatians hanging up (in a ‘fridge or cold room?). They were possibly using the dog instead of lamb (?).

(R24) PD heard that a specific Chinese restaurant in Acton (the same one as in R1) had been prosecuted for serving cats. .A vet called M (whose present address I have been so far unable to trace) got a cat bone stuck in his throat. This was about fifteen years ago.

(R25) PD also heard another contemporaneous version about the same restaurant, but with a different discovery motif (set 6): cats were discovered hanging from their tails on the washing line in the restaurant back garden.

(R26) PD heard of a specific (but forgotten) Indian restaurant which was discovered to be serving rat. It was prosecuted for misrepresentation!

(R27) SD heard of a specific Indian restaurant in Acton which served dog in its curry. No further details.

Finally, three literary references. The first may show that the rumour has been around for a long time. It comes from the Egypt of 1201 AD, during a great famine:

(L1) ‘The following story, which was recounted by the commandant himself, received at the time great publicity. A woman came one day to see him; she had her face uncovered and appeared to be in the grip of extreme horror. She told him that she was a midwife and had been invited in her professional capacity to the home of certain women. There, someone had given her a plate of sicbadj, (a dish of cubed meat and vegetables in a sweet-sour sauce—RS) very well made and perfectly seasoned. She had noticed that, in it, there was a lot of meat different from the kind usually used in a sicbadj (mutton—RS) and this had given her a distinct distaste for it. Contriving to draw a little girl aside, she asked her what kind of meat it was, and the child said: “Miss So-and-so—the very fat one—came to pay us a visit and my father killed her; she is in here jointed and hung.”

‘The commandant had everyone arrested. ...But the master of the house saved himself, and eventually did so well that he won pardon by donating three hundred pieces of gold.’ (Abd aI-Latif translated in Tanahill 1975:53)

Of course the story may be true. It was supposed to have happened during a great famine and al-Latif recounts many other acts of overt cannibalism. Nevertheless it has many similarities with other versions of the rumour. The next version even mentions human remains; it comes from the South East London Mercury of 7th July 1977 in the course of a piece about the emergence of another rumour, about child mutilation, in SE London. The ‘he’ referred to is Peter Opie, the folklorist.

 (L2) ‘He believes the “Chinese Restaurant” is similar. A dog knocks over a dustbin outside a Chinese restaurant, and a human finger, thumb, cat’s paw or something equally sinister, is found. Mr Opie says that this story must have been inspired originally by racialists. Other nations probably had similar stories about immigrants.’

Fortunately I have no space to go into Mr Opie’s ‘theories’ here. The third literary reference shows that the ‘Chinese Restaurant’ rumour is also known in USA. The central character in the story is walking ‘down the bustling village streets’ of a unspecified American town.

(L3) ‘Past Mac’s diner,...past the Woman’s Exchange,...Past the Chinese restaurant they had not entered since the day her aunt had told her mother she had seen cat’s heads in the garbage bins out back.’ (Kaufman 1977)


(Note: where two dates are given, the earlier refers to the date of the first appearance of the edition cited, but any pages numbers will refer to the later (often paperback) printing.)

Bulmer, Ralph (1967) ‘Why is the cassowary not a bird?’ Man (ns) vol. 2 no. 1, March 1967 in Douglas, Mary (ed) Rules and Meanings, Penguin Books, London, 1973.

Campbell, Joseph (1973) Myths to Live By Souvenir Press, New York.

Cooper, Derek (1974) The Gullibility Gap Routledge and Kegan Paul, London,

Culler, Jonathan (1976) Saussure Fontana/Collins, London.

Currah, Ann (1972) The Cat Compendium William Kimber, London.

Douglas, Mary (1966) Purity and Danger Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, Penguin Books, London, 1970,

Douglas, Mary (1973) Natural Symbols Penguin Books, London,

Kaufman, Sue (1977) ‘Without Mistletoe’ in The Master and Other Stories Hamish Hamilton, London.

Kirk, GS  (1970) Myth: its meaning and function in ancient and other cultures Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Leach, Edmund (1964) ‘Anthropological Aspects of Language: Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse’ in Lenneberg, EH (ed), New Directions in the Study of Language MIT Press, Massachusetts reprinted in Maranda, Pierre (ed), Mythology Penguin Books London 1972.

Leach, Edmund (1974) Levi-Strauss, Fontana/Collins, London, 1974.

Leach, Edmund (1976) Culture and Communication Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Leach, Edmund (1977) ‘Profanity and Context’ New Scientist, London, Vol. 76,

Levi-Strauss, Claude (1963a) Totemism Beacon Press, 1963. Penguin University Books, London, 1973.

Levi-Strauss, Claude (1963b) ‘The Structural Study of Myth’ in Structural Anthropology Basic Books Inc. Penguin University Books, London 1972.

Levi-Strauss, Claude (1967) ‘The Myth of Asdiwal’ in Leach, Edmund (ed), The Structural Study of Myth and Totemism Tavistock Publications, London, 1967, 1968.

Levi-Strauss, Claude (1970) The Raw and the Cooked Jonathan Cape, London.

Morin, Edgar (1971)  ‘Rumour in Orleans.’ Anthony Blond, London

Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. (1939) ‘Taboo’—The Frazer Lecture, 1939 in Structure and Function in Primitive Society Cohen and West, London, 1952.

Scott, Rachel (1971) A Wedding Man is Nicer Than Cats, Miss, David and Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon.

Steiner, Franz (1956) Taboo, Cohen and West, London; Penguin Books, London, 1967.

Tambiah S.J. (1969) ‘Animals are good to think and good to prohibit’, Ethnology, Vol. 8 No.4, October and in Douglas, Mary (ed), Rules and Meanings, Penguin Books, London, 1973.

Tanahill, Reay (1975) Flesh and Blood, Hamish Hamilton, London.

Turner, Victor (1969) The Ritual Process Routledge and Kegan Paul, London; Penguin Books, London 1974.