Questions about 2 phrases: "Mickey Mouse" and "Bell the cat"

How did Mickey Mouse become associated with failure or half-assed efforts? Heres a few examples:

“That restaraunt is a real Mickey Mouse operation.”
“You lose games- that’s what happens when you try to Mickey Mouse with your roster.”

What does everyone have against poor Mickey anyway?

Also, what exactly does it mean to “bell the cat?”.

The context I saw it in was a book called “Six Days of War” where President Johnson was trying to come up with a strategy on the impending Israeli-Arab 6 day war in 1967 (69?). It seems like it means to make a decision on an issue that maybe has been bandied about too long?

I remember the last time I tried to put a bell on my cat: you had to tackle him down, put the collar on him, he freaks out for an hour, then he’s fine with it.

Am I on the right track here?:confused:

Bell the cat - I always think of mice voting to bell the cat, ie if the cat wore a bell you’d always know where it is and the mice would never get caught. Obviously the problems is that some mouse has to go do the deed, something unlikely to ever happen. It’s deciding on a plan of action that is impossible to undertake. At least that’s what I always think of.

Mickey Mouse - I believe it comes from cheap Mickey Mouse knock off watches from Japan in the 1950’s.

To quote the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang which I usually just quote as “Lighter says,” there are quotes from 1947 to the effect of what you want.

There are earlier cites using “Mickey Mouse” in music to indicate that it ain’t the best thing going, but rather a version that is second rate. Small. To quote from 1938:

Ah, the failure of culture in these modern times.

One of Aesop’s fables:
The mice were constantly harried and tormented by a cat, often falling prey to it and being eaten. Finally, in desperation, they called a great meeting of all the mice to find a way to deal with the cat. The meeting went on for a very long time with one suggestion after another to defeat the cat in battle being jeered down as foolish, given the respective strength of the cat to the mice.

Finally one young mouse spoke up, “We do not need to defeat the cat. If we merely put a bell on a collar around its neck, we would hear the cat coming from a distance and have the opportunity to hide before he arrived.”

At this suggestion, the entire meeting erupted into loud cheers that continued for many minutes. “Of course!” all the mice exclaimed. “We do not need to fight the cat, we need only make it so that he cannot sneak up upon us!” And the cheering resumed again.

However, when the mice had finished their cheering and the meeting was about to break up after such a successful decision, one old mouse in the back corner who had not joined the cheering spoke up, “It would, indeed, be a wonderful thing to hang a bell on the cat so that he could never surprise us again. I do have one question, however: Who will bell the cat?”

I don’t totally promise that this is correct, but my best sources(without double-checking) indicate that the story of “belling the cat” comes from the 14th century story of “Piers Plowman.”

It told of a family of mice. They all agreed that the cat should be belled to warn them of its approach. But the smartest mouse asked the question of “who” should bell the cat.

Well, I just threw that book in the trash.:stuck_out_tongue:

tom is absolutely correct.

“Mickey Mouse” started out as an animation term, and referred to the practice of doing the animation without any reference, and then trying to force the sound-track to fit afterwards. (Because Disney Studios did this.)

Larry. You could well be right. Is there a prior thread about this? Do you have a source that proves it came from the animation/music thingy?

I agree that the “Bell the Cat” origin is Aesop. However, I cannot resist adding some useless info (from Scottish history) here.

Excerpt from :

From the literary allusions section of my English AP handbook:

Belling the Cat (from an old fable and Piers Plowman)-The fable tells of a mouse’s suggestion to put a bell around the neck of a cat so they could tell when the cat was in the vicinity. However, the question of who was to have the courage to bell the cat was a difficult one because of the inherent danger. Now a person who bells the cat is a person who has courage to stick his neck out for his friends despite putting himself at risk.
So, yeah, basically what the others said, but combined.

Well, that certainly is a different approach to “bell the cat” than I thought of. Still thinking this one through . . . Maybe someone can try and put this phrase in a modern day example that they have gone through, without mice?

How about more on Mickey Mouse? Only 2-3 theories so far!

Thanks, everyone! I am enjoying your respnses! :smiley:

I’ve looked in a old copy (1978 it seems, it’s MCMLXXVIII in roman numerals), and it seems to emphasise the act being one of courage. Under the heading Bell, there is this subsection:

It also refers to a quote from The Times

And this also refers to the Archibald Douglas, who Celyn refers to. There is only a fairly short section, (under Bell-the-cat):

As far as “Mickey-Mousing” and music goes… I don’t have a specific cite, but I did my term paper in my last Music History class on film music, and IIRC, in that context, “Mickey-mousing” referred to the practice in animation of the musical score mirroring the action of the cartoon – for example, a horse is running, the music goes ba-dump ba-dump along with the horse’s hooves, the horse screeches to a stop and hits a wall, the music mimics that action. This was, and probably still is, a highly common practice in cartoon scoring, check out any Looney Tune or Merrie Melodie. But… I’ve never heard the version of Mickey Mouse that the OP mentions… it honestly doesn’t make any sense to me that Mickey Mouse would be associated with failure or half-assedness, of all things. Sorry I can’t shed any light on that portion.

Here’s a clue. Maybe “Mickey Mouse” is a New York City originated term:


*For grown-ups, downtown offers a quasi-urban experience that can’t be had elsewhere in the suburbs. Brian Haas and his wife, Dianne, are doctors who met while in medical school in Manhattan in the 80’s. Career took the Haases to the Orlando area, but both miss the experience of walking to bars and jazz clubs in New York. They can get some of that here, Brian said.

“We’re a high-powered New York-Washington couple,” he explained, as I joined him early one morning for breakfast before he walked his children, Julian and Zachary, to school. “Morning Edition” was on the radio, that week’s New Yorker on the kitchen counter. Except for the cavernous space, the Haas home could easily pass for the apartment of an overscheduled two-income Manhattan family.

“I’m an inveterate New Yorker,” Brian said. **“I could not at first imagine ever living in a Disney town – too Mickey Mouse, to use a cynical New Yorker’s expression. ** But cynicism is often a mask for frustrated idealism. After visiting Celebration, I realized there were virtues to Disney’s involvement. With all the publicity” – and here he gestured in my direction – “they can’t afford to let Celebration fail.”

After a while I began to see how someone as “high powered” as Brian Haas, a busy surgeon who probably devotes very little time in a day to doubt, might learn to suspend disbelief about something like the urbanity of his adopted hometown. “It’s the best of New York,” Brian declared. And then, a moment later, “I love it because of the kids.” Which is, of course, the classic pre-neotraditional rationale for moving to the suburbs.

When I was in the Jazz Ensemble both in High School and College, the directors (both professional jazz musicians) would tell us to “Mickey Mouse” a phrase if it was to sound light and cartoon-y. More like short, staccatto eighth notes instead of the long-short way you play to “swing” notes.

A good example of a song that uses a “Mickey Mouse” style would be the Squirrel Nut Zippers Ghost of Stephen Foster which was so Mickey Mouse it inspired a Disney-like video to go with it.

To tie this in with what samclem posted, a swing band playing all Mickey Mouse music was novel, catchy and not “real swing” while a full on swing band would really cook (think N’Sync = Mickey Mouse and Zepplin != Mickey Mouse).

Oh, and the directors also would tell us NOT to Mickey Mouse through a phrase quite often (us being a bunch of white mid-westerners who had to THINK before we could SWING).

FWIW, I never thought that “Mickey-Mouse” meant a failed operation or undertaking; rather one that was laughably small-scale in the current context.

>> I’ve never heard the version of Mickey Mouse that the OP mentions…

I have heard it many times to describe a shoddy or inadequate job. If someone suggests something which is woefully inadequate he might be told: “Forget about that Mickey mouse stuff; we need a serious solution.”

While I have no idea of the exact origin I find it descriptive and self explanatory. Probably any cartoon character would o the same effect: “Forget about that Will Coyote stuff; we need a serious solution.”

I always assumed it came from all the Mickey Mouse toys that flooded the market in the fifties. In these of uber-nostalgia, it’s hard to remember these things once were thought of as toys, and only kids played with them.

Kids had Mickey Mouse watches, Mickey Mouse lunch boxes, thermoses, clothes, etc. When you grew up, you got a “real” watch and lunchbox and put away the Mickey Mouse stuff. In those days, you really did hear people say things like “that’s not a real watch, it’s just a Mickey Mouse watch”. They were, by and large, considered toys and not for adults.

Seems a small step from there to saying “Mickey Mouse” for anything that was considered of lower quality or less than adequate to the task.

I spent a few minutes googling ‘mickey mouse’. The oldest reference I found was from Eldridge Cleaver from the late 60’s.

" it feels good to swing to way-out body-rhythms instead of dragassing across the dance floor like zombies to the dead beat of mind-smothered Mickey Mouse music.
Eldridge Cleaver (b. 1935), U.S. black leader, writer. Soul on Ice, “The White Race and Its Heroes” (1968)"

Sorry not to post in more specifics about Mickey Mouse, other than the jazz usage(which pretty well showed that it was derogatory right from the getgo).

We’ve already seen that it meant “second-rate” in the late 30’s. By 1945, the term was so universally common that the “Filipinos” used it to refer to the Japanese Invasion money that was all over the island. It was fake, bogus stuff. And they denigrated it by calling it “Mickey Mouse.”

So things could be “Mickey Mouse” as early as the 1930’s.

It’s not too far of a jump to the 1950’s when businesses and enterprises which were “second rate” would be called a “Mickey Mouse” operation.

But the origins were well laid in the late 1930’s, early 1940’s.