Cat o'nine tails, whip-cord with wooden handle, reputedly British Navy, 1700-1850
A cat-o-nine tails is a whip. It consists of nine pieces of cord each tied with a series of knots. The device traditionally punished sailors in the British Royal Navy by whipping their bare backs. It is thought the cat-o-nine tails got its name from the ‘scratches’ it left on a man’s back. Ship captains could only order up to 24 whips of the cat-o-nine tails. The device was suspended by the Royal Navy in 1879 but it had fallen out of use long before this date.
The cat-o-nine tails created some English expressions: “Not enough room to swing a cat” referred to the whip; “Letting the cat out of the bag” refers to the device being kept in a special bag on board.