Yesterday I came across an interesting article on El País about the founding of the Real Academia Española, one of my favorite institutions. The article relates, with a lamentable lack of detail, how a group of eight Spaniards began meeting in 1713 to create the first Spanish dictionary. Three other colleagues soon joined the project, it received royal sanction the following year, and the rest is (linguistic) history. Missing from the article are the founders’ identities (besides the Marqués de Villena) and backgrounds (more nobility? writers? scholars?). Still, it’s an inspiring tale.
As usual, I read the article with an eye out for unfamiliar vocabulary. All I encountered was a novel (to me) expression: the author compares the RAE’s founding to cuatro gatos [que] se lanzaban al abismo (“four cats who jumped into an abyss”). Lanzarse al abismo was clearly a metaphor for starting a venture into the unknown. Cuatro gatos, on the other hand, seemed purely idiomatic.
Thanks to an appeal to the friendly folks on the wordreference.com Spanish-English vocabulary forum, and a Google search that yielded similar results, I learned that cuatro colloquially refers to a small quantity (in English we’d say “a handful”) and gato can be slang for “person”. (Wordreference.com itself gives a slang interpretation of gato as “person from Madrid”, but the usage seems to be more general.) So the mystery sentence boiled down to “a small group of people started an uncertain venture”.
I love the parallel between this use of gato and the English slang meaning of cat as “a cool person”. The choice of cuatro to stand for “a handful” is also pleasing. As a rule of thumb, I think of three as “a few” and five as “several”; four is right in between. From a literary perspective it was also rather bold to mix literal numbers (8 and 11 founding members) with the metaphorical number 4.
Still, it’s hard to shake off the image of a cat playing a lemming…