Katie Bar the Door

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Also: Katy Bar the Door

Meaning of Idiom 'Katy Bar the Door'

When someone says Katy bar the door they mean get ready for trouble; something bad is about to happen.

Usage

"If Rebekah catches you messing around with other women it's Katy bar the door."

"Don't let Arnie drink more than one beer or it's Katie bar the door."

Origin

Used since at least the late 1800's, the origin of this idiom is very difficult to trace. Although the expression seems to have originated in America and it is rarely heard outside the US, the only credible claims to its origin are Scottish. As Phrases.org Phrases.org explains, this may be explained by the many Scottish immigrants to America, but one would expect a similar expression to be heard in Scotland.

The strongest claim may be that it originated with Catherine Douglas, lady-in-waiting to King James I of Scotland, who attempted to save her king from murders. The king's own chamberlain was a conspirator in the plot and had removed the security bar from the king's bedroom door. Catherine heard the killers approaching in the night, and attempted to bar the door with her arm. The murderers broke her arm and killed the king. After this event, Catherine Douglas became known as Catherine Barlass (the lass that barred the door). Her descendants still use this surname. This story was chronicled in Gabriel Dante Rossetti's poem The King's Tragedy:

Then the Queen cried, "Catherine, keep the door,
And I to this will suffice!"
At her word I rose all dazed to my feet,
And my heart was fire and ice.

Like iron felt my arm, as through
The staple I made it pass:-
Alack! it was flesh and bone - no more! 570
'Twas Catherine Douglas sprang to the door,
But I fell back Kate Barlass.

The line Catherine, keep the door is thought to have become Katy, bar the door, used figuratively to mean "prepare ready for trouble."

Another suggestion is that it the idiom originated with a Scottish Ballad called Get Up and Bar the Door, about a husband and wife who, at the end of the day, cannot agree who should get up and bar the door. They make a deal that whoever speaks the first word should be the one who has to lock the door. This omission allows to robbers to walk right in, but the couple still refuse to speak lest they have to bar the door. The robbers eat their food and then begin to make threats. When they threaten to kiss the man's wife, he breaks his silences, saying "you won't kiss my wife right in front of me. I'll throw you on the floor." This causes the wife to say to her husband, "You spoke first, so get up and bar the door." Of course, it was too late, hence the idiom. The ballad is written in Scottish dialect, but here it is translated into English:

Get Up and Bar the Door (4)

The wind blew high, the wind blew cold,
It blew across the moor,
When John Jones said to Jane, his wife,
"Get up and bar the door."

"Oh, I have worked all day," said she,
"I've washed and scrubbed the floor,
You lazy man, get up, I say,
Get up and bar the door.

"Oh, I have worked so hard," said he,
"I know I can't do more;
So come, my own, my dearest wife,
Get up and bar the door.

Then they agreed between the two,
A solemn oath they swore,
That the one who spoke the very first word
Would have to bar the door.

The wind blew east, the wind blew west,
It blew all over the floor,
But neither one would say a word
For barrin' of the door.

Three robbers came along that way,
They came across the moor;
They saws Light and walked right in,
Right in through the open door.

"Oh, is the owner of this house
A rich man or a poor?"
But neither one would say a word
For barrin' of the door.

They ate the bread, they drank the ale,
Then said, "Come, give us more."
But neither one would say sword
For barrin' of the door.

"Let's pull the old man's beard" said one,
"Let's beat him till he's sore."
But still the old man wouldn't speak
For barrin' of the door.

"I'll kiss his pretty wife," said one,
"Oh, her I could adore."
And then the old man shook his fist
And gave a mighty roar.

"Oh, you'll not kiss my wife," said he,
"I'll throw you on the floor.
Said she, "Now, John, you've spoken first,
So get up and bar the door.

The name Katy is never mentioned in the ballad, so the claim that this is the origin of the present idiom is not very strong. 1,2

It has been pointed out that this expression was more popular in the Southern United States and that perhaps it was brought by Scottish immigrants who settled in Appalachia.

Sources
1. Chrysti. Verbivore's Feast: Second Course: More Word & Phrase Origins. Helena, MT: Farcountry, 2006.
2. Martin, Gary. "'Katy Bar the Door' - the Meaning and Origin of This Phrase." Phrasefinder. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2017

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