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catbird-seat

Catbird seat

"The catbird seat" is an idiomatic phrase used to describe an enviable position, often in terms of having the upper hand or greater advantage in all types of dealings among parties.

"In the catbird seat" was among the numerous folksy expressions with which the legendary baseball broadcaster Red Barber delighted listeners. Some say he invented the expression; others say that he dug it up from his Southern origins.

According to Douglas Harper's Online Etymological Dictionary, the phrase refers to the Gray catbird and was used already in the 19th century in the southern United States. However, another clue to the history of the word may come from the Australian bowerbird of the family Ptilonorhynchidae, also known as the catbird. This bird is known for the extraordinary lengths that the males will go to in order to build a bower to attract a mate. Some birds will assemble several hundred colored rocks or shells, arranging them in a remarkable and artistic display, in order to build the "seat" atop which his mate will eventually be enthroned.

In a 1942 humorous short story titled "The Catbird Seat," James Thurber features a character, Mrs. Barrows, who likes to use the phrase. Another character, Joey Hart, explains that Mrs. Barrows must have picked up the expression from Red Barber and that to Barber "sitting in the catbird seat" meant "'sitting pretty,' like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him."

According to Barber's daughter, it was only after her father read Thurber's story that he began using the phrase "in the catbird seat." However, according to "Colonel" Bob Edwards' book "Fridays with Red", Barber claims that Thurber got this and many other expressions from him, and that Barber had first heard the term used during a poker game in Cincinnati during the Depression.

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