“KATY, BAR THE DOOR”
The phrase Katy, bar the door! is a very American exclamation. It is used more commonly in the South than elsewhere. It means that disaster impends, or “watch out”, or “get ready for trouble”, or perhaps “a desperate situation is at hand”. I have heard it used most of my life, and I am sure that you have, too. Attempting to pin down its origin is difficult, but appears to have been around since about 1888.
Research boils down to a couple of possibilities of its origin. The first one comes from The Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. It is suggested that the phrase came from a traditional ballad from medieval Scotland entitled Get Up and Bar the Door. However, the name Katy is never mentioned in this song.
Basically it tells the story of a wife who wants her husband to bar the door of their house because the wind is blowing in and disturbing her while cooking. However, the husband doesn’t want to be bothered to get up and do it. After a heated argument, the two agree that the first person who speaks will be the loser, and will have to bar the door. Neither of them relents, and the door was never barred.
During the night robbers enter through the open door and eat the food the wife has prepared. However, when the robbers propose to cut off the husband’s head and kiss the wife, the husband rises up in a rage and drives the thieves out of his house. The husband then bars the doors, the loser of the agreement, but the savior of he and his wife.
Though this ballad is actually a wry look at marital obstinacy and its consequences, the most direct lesson is that not barring the door has led them to trouble. So, it is possible that the injunction “bar the door” was adopted from it to suggest there is trouble ahead.
However, many experts subscribe to a quite different story, also from Scotland. It involves one Catherine Douglas. King James I of Scotland, a cultured and firm ruler, was seen by some of his countrymen as a tyrant. Under attack by his enemies while staying at the Dominican chapter house in Perth on February 20, 1437, he was holed up in a room whose door had the usual metal staples for a wooden bar, but whose bar had been taken away.
The legend has it that Catherine Douglas, one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, tried heroically to save the King by barring the door with her naked arm. Her attempt failed and her arm was broken during the break-in. The King was murdered and Catherine was thereafter known as Catherine Barlass. Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote a poem about her in 1881 entitled The King’s Tragedy, of which one stanza is:
Like iron felt my arm, as through
The staple I made it pass;
Attack! It was flesh and bone…no more!
‘Twas Catherine Douglas sprang to the door,
But I fell back Kate Barlass.
This is as circumstantial a basis for the expression “Katie bar the door” as the first one above, but it is stronger in its romantic association and therefore rather more probable a source.
Thus, the real origin of the now familiar saying “Katy, bar the door” may never be settled. However, we all know what it means, and that’s what really counts.