Date: Sun, 29 Sep 1996 10:38:14 -0500

From: Cynthia Bernstein bernscy[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]MAIL.AUBURN.EDU

Subject: Re: Katie bar the door

The following explanation is offered by Frederic G. Cassidy (Chief Editor,

Dictionary of American Regional English), in an article entitled "DARE:

Some Etymological Puzzles," forthcoming in early 1997, _Language Variety

in the South Revisited_, edited by Cynthia Bernstein, Thomas Nunnally, and

Robin Sabino, University of Alabama Press.

My final example is an expression that had a considerable vogue in

sports broadcasting early in 1991: Katie, bar the door! There is no

question of the meaning: it is a signal of alarm, accurately translated as

`All hell is about to break loose'. We have appealed for help in NADS (the

newsletter of the American Dialect Society), and in American Notes and

Queries but without much response. It seems pretty clearly to refer to the

old story of the assassination in 1437 of King James the First of

Scotland. The King was in an outbuilding, unarmed, accompanied only by the

Queen and her ladies among whom was Katherine Douglas. When the attack

came, someone shouted, "Katie, bar the door!" But the murderers had

removed the bar, so Katie Douglas thrust her arm through the staples and

held on. The men were too strong for her, her arm was broken, and though

the King defended himself, he was killed. However, the heroic deed won

Katie the nickname of Barlass, the lass who barred the door, and her

praise was sung throughout Scotland. Now, the etymological question. How

did this phrase come to be used in the United States in the late twentieth

century? My best guess at present, based on no hard evidence but, I think,

a reasonable surmise, is that Katie bar the door was a line, perhaps the

refrain, of a popular song or ballad composed at the time of James'

murder, that it was brought to America by Scottish immigrants, as so many

ballads were, and that it lingered, most likely in Appalachia.

Unfortunately, I have found no published form of this putative ballad, and

if anyone knows it and can still sing it, he or she has not been found.

Nevertheless, Katie bar the door has been in wide use for a long time. It

is a reality, and the sense of it is exactly preserved in the form now

used by sports figures and fans. It would require only one player or one

sportscaster with Scottish roots to have revived it. Consider another

well-known Southern phrase, which once had a popular vogue in the baseball

world. "Sitting in the catbird seat" has been traced to Red Barber, a

sports broadcaster of the 1930s and 1940s. It was later used in a short

story by humorist James Thurber, who brought it to a wider audience. Katie

bar the door may well have followed a similar route. I have come upon no

competing explanation. But without some hard evidence, this particular

scenario is inconclusive. I appeal once again to all with an interest in

ballads or acquaintance with ballad singers. (pp. 280-281)

. . . . . .

Finally, Katie, bar the door. The reconstruction I have offered,

however plausible, does not produce an acceptable etymology. I hope that

someone may still find us some hard evidence. Till then, it is still

etym. uncert. (p. 281)

On Sun, 29 Sep 1996, Charles & Mary Boewe wrote:

When confronted by a calamity, either natural or man-made, my late father

(1898-1985) was likely to remark, "It will be Katie bar the door!" I had

supposed the expression was common to his generation and might be limited

to the Middle West. However, recently on his ABC news program, Ted

Koppel also declared that if certain things came about it would be "Katie

bar the door."

My questions are: Who was Katie? and Why did she bar the door?

Charles Boewe