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From a 19th century newspaper:

Newspaper cutting with the quote transcribed below

A family who had the misfortune to lose their father were discussing what mourning would be required, when the youngest, a child of six, said : "Oh, mother, what a good job the cat’s a black one."

I don't understand the meaning of the child's remark. The family is discussing what kind of mourning to perform. The child's remark is hard to parse for me, as a non-native speaker: "what a good job" seems not to combine logically with "the cat's a black one". What does it mean?

My guess is that it means "How lucky it is that the cat is a black one". But then the meaning of the whole joke remains completely incomprehensible for me.

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  • Oscar Wilde used a variation on the same joke, while speaking of a widow: "I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief." Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 0:32

3 Answers 3

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Your guess is correct; "How lucky it is that the cat is a black one" is an accurate restatement of the phrase. "good job" is a particularly British term for "lucky".

So that leaves the question: why would it be lucky that the cat is black?

In all likelihood, this has to do with the tradition of wearing black clothes to a funeral or when mourning. There's a long history of wearing black while mourning in the English-speaking world; rumor has it that the tradition can be traced back to the Romans wearing black togas to funerals.

In any case, the mourning family is discussing what's required. The mention of black clothes would have come up. The child, not fully grasping that the cat doesn't necessarily wear clothes or attend funerals, remarks that it's lucky that the cat is already black, which saves the trouble of getting black clothes (or dye) for the cat.

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  • 20
    Another possibly important context is that most likely the family (especially kids) would not already have appropriate clothing as black would rarely be worn for daily use. For a typical 19th century family obtaining such clothing would be a big financial burden as clothing was quite a bit more expensive relative to wages than it is today. So there might be a bit of social commentary going on as well: lamenting that a family in such a dire situation is expected to pay a lot of money for a public display of grief Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 9:23
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    agreed that "good job" is informal but definitely not slang. Afaik it wouldn't have been viewed as slang in the 19th century either. Superstitions around black cats being unlucky are likely also relevant in making this remark seem especially worthy of anecdote
    – Tristan
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 9:02
  • I simply find the joke funny—I could imagine finding something like this in Saki.
    – Barnaby
    Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 1:46
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The quotation says that the family “were discussing what mourning would be required”, where “mourning” is used in the sense:

mourning, n. 6.a. The dress or customary clothes (in Western society usually black) worn by mourners.

Oxford English Dictionary.

In “good job”, the word “good” means “fortunate” (OED sense 18a) and “job” is used in the sense:

job, n. 5. A state of affairs, a situation, a set of circumstances. Frequently with modifying adjective, as bad, good, etc.

Oxford English Dictionary.

(This sense of the word is now fossilized in the phrases “good job” and “bad job” but in the 19th century it was still productive.)

So the joke is that the child thinks that cats need to wear mourning as well as people.

Formerly, mourning was worn in England both for a longer period and of a much deeper character than is usual at the present time. Two years were not considered too long a time for a father or a mother. Now, custom prescribes only one year. It is also considered better form now to wear plainer and less ostentatiously heavy and expensive habiliments. Widows wear deep mourning for one year; then ordinary mourning as long a time as they may wish. Deep mourning is considered to be woollen “stuff” and crape. Second mourning is black silk trimmed with crape. Half-mourning is black and white. Complimentary mourning is black silk without crape. These different stages are less observed everywhere, outside of courts, than formerly.

Mrs. H. O. Ward (1878). Sensible Etiquette of the Best Society, Customs, Manners, Morals, and Home Culture, p. 268. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates.

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  • Except that good job does not mean that in this context. Good job is a British English phrase for a fortunate fact or circumstance. So the context of 'job' in the joke is not saying what it appears you're saying (though I'm dead tired so maybe I missed something). But the kid is saying it's fortunate the cat is already black. I wouldn't know what it would be in American English though. Maybe it would be what you say. .. though as another answer points out: black cats are also thought of as unlucky which makes it better still.
    – Pryftan
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 20:51
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While the existing two answers are good ones that explain how to parse the phrase (as you guessed, "How lucky it is that the cat is a black one"), I think they are missing a bit of context that may further explain the joke: black cats can (in English culture) be considered to be unlucky.

This article cites a possible origin of the superstition as far back as 1233.

“It begins with Pope Gregory IX in 1233 when he issues the papal bull, Vox in Rama, that began the Inquisition and the church sanction, heretic and witch hunts,” explained Meghan Henning, associate professor of Christian origins at the University of Dayton. “In that 1233 document, he says that black cats were an incarnation of Satan.”

The Dictionary of English Folklore indicates that 67% of respondents to a 1998 survey were aware of the existence of a superstition about black cats, though there were mixed responses about whether black cats are supposed to be lucky or unlucky.

Beliefs concerning cats, especially *black ones, are numerous and often contradictory [...] On the whole, black cats are lucky in England, and therefore appear on greetings cards and as *charms; however, informants from several counties say it is unlucky if one crosses your path [...]

This source dates the existence of a black cat superstition in England to at least the 17th century.

I'll admit it's just an informed guess that historical readers of this paper would be expected to have an awareness of the idea that black cats can cause bad luck: I'm making an assumption that the paper is British (based on the phrasing of the joke) and that the modern questionnaire showing fairly broad familiarity with the superstition in England can be extrapolated back to readers two centuries earlier. But this background can make the joke feel like... well, more of a joke.

Armed with this context, the child's comment can be seen as morbidly ironic: while they are innocently expressing that it's fortunate that the cat is in mourning colours appropriate for their father's death, it is implied that the family owning a black cat is the ultimate cause of their misfortune. If the cat had not been unlucky black, there would be no need for anyone to wear mourning colours at all.

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  • Well written. I was thinking of this as well and you analysed it great.
    – Pryftan
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 20:53
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    ... I would also say that your answer does indeed make it a funnier joke. I don't know if that's what was intended but it's how I chose to interpret it too. It's brilliant and your analysis is too.
    – Pryftan
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 21:00
  • At one time (maybe still) in the UK it was considered a sign of good luck for the marriage if a black cat crossed a bride's path on her wedding day. Also a chimney sweep, and sometimes couples would hire one specially. Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 9:07
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    @MichaelHarvey when I started researching this answer I was not expecting the degree to which the black cat superstitions would be a) longstanding and widespread and b) a completely mixed bag of positive and negative! Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 20:49
  • The situation is similar with the number 13, which is usually regarded as unlucky in Anglophone cultures, but lucky in some others (France, China, India that I know of). Also I believe that in Voodoo magic, the bones of a black cat are especially powerful when used in potions, spells, etc. Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 21:48

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