I just came across this phrase in a novel based in Texas. It’s new to me and I wondered if anyone had more information about its meaning and origin.
It means “Warning! Danger!” (as if you were telling your wife Katy to bar the door, because the angry mob is coming).
Katy is Catherine Douglas, reportedly.
I’ve only heard of it through World Wide Words.
Here’s their article on the subject:
tl;dr version: origin uncertain
From the World Wide Words article:
Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote a poem about her in 1881, entitled The King’s Tragedy , which has been suggested as the direct source of the saying, but the nearest Rossetti comes to the usual form of the expression in the poem is “Catherine, keep the door!”
In any case, we now know that it can’t be the source because US researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake has found examples that predate publication of Rossetti’s poem.
That certainly looks likely but begs the question of why it should be a common expression in the Southern US,
Probably not a good idea to use your arm to do it either:)
It turns up in the most surprising places, like the New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/08/us/politics/for-biden-easing-hillary-clintons-grip-on-minority-voters-could-be-tricky.html
““If she acquits herself well on Oct. 22 and she does well in Iowa, I don’t think Vice President Biden getting in will be a big factor,” said Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, referring to the date for Mrs. Clinton’s testimony before the House panel investigating her use of a private email server as secretary of state. “But if something happens with these emails or she stumbles in Iowa, then it’s ‘Katy, bar the door.’ ””
As amateur and folk etymologist, I humbly submit this poem as a possible origin, published in a posthumous collection 1875, written a few years earlier.
Domestic Strife; or, Tam and Kate
by Alexander Law Orr 1848-1874
“Oh, Tam, oh, Tam” cried Kate “I do declare
I hear somebody coming up the stair!”
"Kate, bide a wee , ” cried Tam ; " bar , bar the door;
Oh , mercy me ! " _ Tam bolted to the floor
My grandmother spent the first 12 years of her life in the Ozarks, during the Depression, and she used that expression fairly frequently.
Many Scotch-Irish immigrated to the southern US, and may have brought the legend with them.
Interesting. I always understood it to mean “…and it’ll be all over,” which sounds like the usage in the quote from Clyburn above.
Also, FWIW, my mother uses it sometimes, and she’s lived nearly all her life in Chicago, never in the south.
I would think that the Scots poem “Get Up and Bar the Door”, mentioned in the World Wide Words link above, would be a more likely source. I would think “Get up and bar” could morph into “Katy”. And it has the sense of urgency / danger.
As in, “If they get a couple more runs here, it’s Katy bar the door.” Implication: game will be all but over with no chance of the other team coming back.
I believe it comes from the Ka-Bar Knife. AKA Katy Bar.
“Katy bar the door” refers to using the knife literally to “bar the door shut”. By extension, to use a katy-bar to defend the door. AKA, the shit has hit the pan and all bets are off.
How does a 20th C. knife inspire a 19th C. expression?
Also, cite for the knife being called a “Katy Bar”?
I think those are related meanings - if all you can do now is bar the door and hope that helps, it probably is nearly all over for you.
There seems little doubt about the general meaning although the etymology is still open to doubt. Kbar knives are not in the running, and “Get up and bar” morphing into “Katy bar the door” is a bit of a stretch, even with a thick Scottish accent.
Kate is a diminutive of Catherine and Catherine Douglas , later Catherine “Kate” Barlass still seems the most likely origin. I guess that the story was well known even before Rossetti’s poem and may well have inspired it
I never understood it to mean that exactly; more like if someone says “… and then if happens, Katy bar the door”, they mean that if happens, get ready, because some unforeseen, unregulated, unprecedented and assuredly unpleasant shit is about to go down.
Kind of a warning that if something happens, then the fallout will be dire.
My parents had an encyclopedia set from about 1900 that was full of English folk tales, folklore, history, etc. It included the story of Catherine Douglas and the expression. Presumably this was a common folk tale of the settlers who came to the USA.
Any Michigander knows the expression from Detroit Red Wings broadcaster Mickey Redmond, who uses it at least once every broadcast.
Redmond grew up in Ontario and played hockey in Montreal and Detroit - unlikely sources of the phrase.