‘Like a Cat On a Hot Tin Roof’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on July 23, 2023

Did someone use the phrase ''like a cat on a hot tin roof' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

  • ‘Like a cat on a hot tin roof’ is an expression that means to be jumpy, nervous, or anxious.

What Does 'Like a Cat On a Hot Tin Roof' Mean?

‘Like a cat on a hot tin roof’ means to be nervous, jumpy, skittish, or agitated.

Though the phrase was made particularly famous by the Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, variations of the expression have actually been around for hundreds of years.

Where Does 'Like a Cat On a Hot Tin Roof' Come From?

An earlier version of the phrase was ‘like a cat on hot bricks’ and referred to the way that a cat acts when walking on a roof on a hot day.

An even earlier version shows up in the work of John Ray, an English naturalist, and theologian that lived between 1627 and 1705. In his A Collection of English Proverbs from 1678, we find the phrase ‘to go like a cat upon a hot bake stone.’ A baked stone is a slate or a flat stone that would be used to bake cakes in the oven.

We find the phrase using ‘Blackstone’ as the surface a cat is walking on in a Sporting Magazine from 1820 in an article titled A New System of Shoeing Horses:

The horse could not endure the concussion upon the roads, became sore in his heels and frogs, and went, as Bracken has it, ‘like a cat upon a backstone.’

In Passages from the Diary of the Late Dolly Duster, we find the earliest instances of the ‘hot bricks’ version of the phrase. Published in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country in 1838, we find the following sentence:

“…something after the fashion of a cat on hot bricks picked his way as well as he could towards the door.”

When it comes to ‘like a cat on a hot tin roof’ in its specific wording, one of the earliest examples shows up in Troop Number 13 Wins Big Battle: Boy Scouts of the City Collect Ten Tons of Paper and Are Still Busy, which was published in June 1921 in the Daily Gazette-Times:

All day long Scout Executive Cornwell was kept busy as a cat on a hot tin roof weighing out bundles of paper which had been collected by the indefatigable scouts.

The Famous Tennessee Williams Play

Of course, we can’t rightfully discuss this phrase without touching upon the famous play by Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. First performed in 1955, the dialogue of the play includes a number of allusions to the expression:

Margaret: Y’know what I feel like, Brick?

I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof!

– Brick: Then jump off the roof, jump off it, cats can jump off roofs and land on their four feet uninjured!

– Margaret: Oh, yes!

– Brick: Do it!—fo’ God’s sake, do it…

– Margaret: Do what?

– Brick: Take a lover!

– Margaret: I can’t see a man but you! Even with my eyes closed, I just see you! Why don’t you get ugly, Brick, why don’t you please get fat or ugly or something so I could stand it?


– Brick: Maggie, I wouldn’t divorce you for being unfaithful or anything else. Don’t you know that? Hell. I’d be relieved to know that you’d found yourself a lover.

– Margaret: Well, I’m taking no chances. No, I’d rather stay on this hot tin roof.

– Brick: A hot tin roof’s ’n uncomfo’table place t’ stay on…

Interestingly, there is also a French equivalent of the same phrase. The literal translation is ‘to be on blazing coals,’ which refers to the test of innocence or guilt that was once used during medieval times.

Examples of This Phrase In Sentences

How would this expression be used in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • She has been acting like a cat on a hot tin roof ever since the job interview. I hope they get back to her soon so she can move on with her life one way or another.”
  • “When the fireworks show started, I was like a cat on a hot tin roof. I wasn’t expecting it to begin so early!”
  • “You’ll have to bear with me today. I’ve been like a cat on a hot tin roof ever since I heard the news.”
  • “Everyone was so impressed with the new manager at the office at first. That’s why it was so shocking to see him respond like a cat on a hot tin roof when his direct superior started asking simple questions.”
  • “Sarah is famous for her unpredictable mood. Sometimes she’ll be the life of the party– confident and extroverted– and other times, she’ll be more anxious than a cat on a hot tin roof.”
  • “Being stuck in traffic like this is making me feel like a cat on a hot tin roof. I know we can still make it on time, but I’m just so anxious about it.”

Other Ways to Say This Idiom

What other words and phrases have a similar meaning to this idiom?

Here are some options:

  • On edge
  • Jumping out of one’s skin
  • Walking on pins and needles
  • Nervous wreck
  • Bundle of nerves

Final Thoughts About 'Like a Cat On a Hot Tin Roof'

‘Like a cat on a hot tin roof’ is a great expression to use when you want to describe someone as jumpy or nervous. Though the phrase has a number of different variations, the Tennessee Williams play by the same name solidified the 'hot tin roof version' as the most well-known modern version of the expression.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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