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The word for cat is now, in almost every European language, derived from Latin cattus, as stated in Etymonline. It also says that the word was

[...] in general use on the continent by c. 700, replacing Latin feles.

The word feles (meaning just "cat") derived in some words in Spanish, such as felino (meaning "relating to or affecting cats") or félido (a word to refer to the cat family, including lions and others). Nonetheless, these are more cultured words. So maybe this distinction also happened in Latin? Was feles a more cultured word than cattus? Or maybe feles referred to any cat while cattus referred only to domestic cats? Why did cattus replace Latin feles?

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From the history of cats, it is clear that domesticated cats were introduced to the Romans from Egypt. Before that, the Romans had ferrets as mouse hunters. So the classical word feles refers to the wild cat, but the Wanderwort cattus (of unknown origin, maybe Nubian) refers to the the domesticated cat. Since domesticated cats are much more important to humans than wild cats, the word cattus was able to replace the word feles on a large scale.

  • I think that is right. Feles refers to cats as well as to ferrets and other weasels. A catus is one particular kind of feles, namely, the type of feles which we today call a cat. – Figulus Jan 23 at 3:43
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    Not sure if I understand you correctly. In your opinion, what word was used in classical Latin for a domesticated cat? Or are you saying there were no domesticated cats back then at all? – Alex B. Jan 23 at 4:25
  • The domesticated cat was cattus, the word was imported to Rome with the animal itself. Both arrived surprisingly late there, catta (the feminine) is found first in Martial: perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=catta&la=la#lexicon – jknappen Jan 23 at 9:48
  • LS says "an unknown species of animal", and in my copy of Martial (Loeb, translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey), cattae (13.69) is translated as "Catta birds" [emphasis mine - Alex B.]. – Alex B. Jan 23 at 20:40

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