When the Cat’s Away, the Mice Will Play (Idiom Meaning and Use)

One of the most famous and oldest idioms in the English language is, “when the cat’s away, the mice will play.” This phrase/sentence indicates when someone, usually an authoritative person, isn’t around, the people left to themselves do things they may not approve of.

However, this isn’t something that becomes part of a sentence. Actually, it’s used as a commentary upon planning or realizing such obstinate behaviors have or are about to take place. But, it’s a witty and charismatic way to characterize such actions.

What Does The Phrase/Sentence Mean?

This is a metaphor to suggest that when the “cat,” or head honcho (like a boss, parent, teacher and etc), is nowhere nearby, the “mice” or subordinates (i.e. children, students, employees and etc) will take advantage of the situation. “Play” references how the underlings/subordinates do things that wouldn’t meet the approval of the “cat” had they been present.

Origins of the Sentence/Phrase

“When the cat’s away, the mice will play” is a very old and extremely ancient Latin use of simile and metaphor. While the arrangement of words differs, it essentially translates to “when the cat sleeps, the mouse rejoices as it leaves its hole.” There are similar expressions in German, Russian, French, and Spanish too.

How to Use “When the Cat’s Away the Mice Will Play”

As you can see, the phrase/sentence is mostly used as commentary to the situation at hand.

Mrs. Smith left the classroom to take a phone call and the students didn’t waste time horsing around. It’s the classic “when the cat’s away, the mice will play.”

When the store manager left for the day, all the employees began playing music and dancing around. Therefore, the old adage is true, “when the cat’s away, the mice will play.”

After dad goes to work for the day, we’ll skip school and go to the movies; you know, the old “when the cat’s away, the mice will play?

Check this shining peregrine of “when the cat’s away, mice will play!” Mr. Thompson is having a Poker game even after his wife asked him not to while away for the weekend.


“When the cat’s away the mice will play” is an antiquated demonstration to show how subordinates are taking advantage of their authority figure being away from them. They will then do things they normally wouldn’t.