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?