What does the term "purring" refer to?

Please settle a debate between my sister and myself.

I’m not a cat owner, but it’s the “low-pitched vibratory sound a cat makes” such as this. My understanding is that they usually do it when they’re happy. My limited interaction with cats leads me to believe they tend to purr when being petted.

I’m not sure where the debate is here. Words do mean specific things, right?

It also is used idiomatically to suggest someone being sarcastic, in a subtle fashion. “‘Why no,’ he purred, ‘I’m sure it isn’t the ugliest hat in the world.’” It’s a nice companion to being “catty.”

So either your sister or yourself think a purr is any sound a cat makes?

Have you heard a cat yowl, screech, etc?

I’m owned by multiple cats and there is a world of difference between a purr and the other sounds made by my felines.

I’m not sure if you’re joking or not, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard it used like that (admittedly though, I’m not a big reader).

I can only think of one other common use. That is to say that some piece of machinery/engine/motor (usually a car) is running very smoothly.

My cats make a variety of noises, their way of ‘talking’. While I am sure each of them has it’s own meaning, they are nothing like ‘purring’. Purring is sub-vocal. Not necessarily just a sign of contentment…I read it somewhere, possibly HERE, that ‘cats will purr for any reason, even if they’re in the middle of a fight with a mailman AND his dog’. Or something like that.

But yeah. I would be astounded to find there is any other definition of a cat’s purr than the one that, so far, everyone has voted for.

I’ve heard cats that were in a great deal of pain purr like, well, kittens. They don’t just purr because they’re happy or digging something.

I’ve read that in addition to doing it when they’re happy, they may also do it when extremely frightened/distressed, as a way of comforting themselves. I can’t remember where I read it, though, and will go look it up if anyone insists (how’s that for being both lazy and well-meaning? heh).

But as the cat-owned lady above notes, it’s the vibratory sound, not the yelling/screeching/mewling/meowing sounds. Psychobunny, tell us your sister is the psycho one in the family, ok?

They definitely do it in distress also, but normally it’s a happy sound. (In fact, sometimes it isn’t a sound - my cat Dewey purrs such that you can’t hear him but can feel it if you put a finger against what on a human would be his voicebox.)

One of the best moments from My Name Is Earl:
Randy, uncomfortably holding a cat: “Uh-oh, it’s making that weird I-like-you noise.”

‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’


I am with those saying that purring only refers to the low vibration noise.

One of my cats is not very vocal and when she makes noise it is usually to purr (unless the dog bothers her, and then she will growl or hiss at the dog). The other one though is extremely talkative and constantly makes a wide range of noises.
He purrs alot, but he also trills (which is a clearly distinct noise apart from purring). He also yowls and meows a lot. Purring is definitely not a catch all term. I don’t think anyone who is familiar with the range of vocalizations cats make would say that it’s all purring.

Thanks for the replies. My sister has insisted that any sound a cat makes can be refered to as purring. She says that when a dog says “woof” it is called barking and when a cat says “meow” it is called purring. I have countered that the latter is meowing, or mewing, or mewling. We then asked both of my parents who agreed with her. Apparently, however, I am right which along with my Scrabble win will allow me to continue to lord it over her for the next day or two.

FWIW, my cats not only purr and meow, they also trill and chatter (and bitch and moan that I don’t feed them enough).

Show this to your sister. Or if you want to be more direct, try http://www.learnersdictionary.com/search/purr[1]

:smiley: This might be one of the few occasions where Dopers agree that, in this context, they do.

Interesting. I’ve never thought of the figurative use as implying sarcasm, because sarcasm is not necessarily about satisfaction. I think the connection to catty is coincidental. Here’s the OED:

Somehow I just don’t connect seductiveness to sarcasm, which is about being caustic, rather than pleased.

Superb point; purring is often used as a simile for a smoothly running engine.

And, aye, I’m serious; “purring” is often used as a verb for someone saying something sarcastic. Saying something “with their claws out” is another metaphor equating cattiness with mean-spirited speech. “Purring” in this way is a bit dated – it’s something Agatha Christie might more likely have written than, say, Stephen King.

Edited to add: "“Wroth, darling,” she purred, smiling so sweetly. “I can’t wait for the next time I get to put my mouth on you.” In an instant the smile faded and she snapped her teeth and yanked her head back as if she was chewing something free.”
― Kresley Cole, The Warlord Wants Forever

I think the idea is that the “purring” implies a soft tone of voice, thus disguising the meanness behind it. It leads to a double-take, where you figure out that what sounded gentle…actually wasn’t. The seductiveness conceals the bitterness…but only for a moment.

But, obviously, we’re way down in the caverns of connotation here, where the ways are winding and mazy and one man’s meet is another man’s passion…