A Cat Nap: Meaning and Origin Revealed

Written by Christina Eck
Updated: June 15, 2023
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We’ve all heard the phrase, “Be right back. I’m going to take a quick cat nap!” or something along those lines. While it isn’t a popular phrase today, it was a well-used term that individuals would say. You might have heard your parents saying it, as today, most people just refer to a quick nap as a doze or rest. 

However, the term is rather an endearing one. So, what exactly does it really mean? Humans aren’t cats and don’t sleep like them huddled in a ball. Despite this, people still use the term. 

If you’re not familiar with the phrase, don’t worry! We’ll give you all the information you’d need to know to understand the term cat nap. We will even explain its meaning, origin, and more!

What Does a “Cap Nap” Mean?

Handsome man is holding a book and napping while lying on couch at home

A cat nap refers to a very short or light sleep of 20 to 30 minutes.

©George Rudy/Shutterstock.com

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionarya cat nap is a short, light nap. It’s a phrase used to describe a short nap where a person sleeps for a short duration during the day. That duration is often only 20 to 30 minutes, enough time to get some rest but not enough to be fully asleep.

The term is used to describe a short 30-minute nap during the day. The reason it’s called this is because our furry feline friends can often be seen lying about for short periods during the day. So, people would use the term cat nap to describe a short rest that they were about to take.

The Origins of “Cat Nap”

Cat sleeping

A cat can be seen napping during the daytime.


Since the term cat nap refers to a short and light sleep during the day, its origin has been believed to have been started by humans observing cats. Cats doze off during the day, regardless of whether they’ve slept all night and might even sleep on you

While it’s hard to pinpoint an exact location of origin, it’s clear to say that the phrase was already popular by the 1800s. Cats have always been associated with napping during the day, so the term gained popularity due to the observed similarity with humans who doze off during the daytime.

However, the first time it was officially a term was in 1859, when it was recognized as a verb. From there the first literary record was in 1916 in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s book The Son of Tarzan. The passage read, “Often before had it supported his sleepy head, and now he leaned back to enjoy the forbidden pleasure of a cat nap.”

Examples of Everyday Use

We don’t see much use of the term today, as it’s not a common phrase. Although, there are still some people who utilize the phrase. Some examples include the following:

Curling up for a catnap to reheat has never been comfier.” – Jasmine Hyman, People, Nov. 1, 2022

“But small daily actions, such as a short walk, break from social media or even a catnap, can add up to have an impact on mental health.” – Jacqueline Kim, The Conversation, July 27, 2022

These are just some examples of the phrase in use today.

A Useful Way to Illustrate the Phrase “Cat Nap”

Woman with sleep mask sleeping in bed together with her cat.

A cat and a human taking a cat nap during the day.


An excellent example of illustrating the phrase is to think back to when anyone in your life has taken a nap during the day. The most common time you might think of using the phrase “a cat nap” is when someone refers to a power nap. A power nap is a much more common phrase used in recent years, and the rest only lasts up to 30 minutes but provides benefits.

So when an adult or even a child goes down to rest, you can use that you can use the term a cat nap. For example, you or someone you know falls asleep briefly before waking up. After that, they said that they must have been sleepy. You can then confirm and say, “You must have had a quick cat nap.”

Another example is if you are getting tired during the day. You tell your friends, family, or coworkers you “need a cap nap.” This refers to you needing a quick rest before going about your day.

What Are the Possible Pros and Cons?

Luckily, there aren’t many cons when it comes to saying “a cap nap.” As with any phrase, term, or slang, you want to be sure you use it correctly. Misusing the phrase could result in people giving you an odd look or not understanding what you’re trying to say. 

There aren’t many ways to use the term incorrectly, but it can still be done. For example, you might be insinuating that someone might look or act sleepy and need some rest. A person might also be offended that the term sounds like you’re comparing them to a feline or household pet. The phrase might not be well known, so it’s best to use it with people familiar with it.

On the other hand, it’s a charming way to describe a power nap. Most people who know the term won’t consider it an insult. In fact, they might be pleased that you’re saying it in that fashion.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Olena Ivanova

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About the Author

Christina Eck is a writer at A-Z Animals, primarily focusing on animals and travel. Christina has been writing about and researching animals for more than seven years. She holds a Bachelor's Degree from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, which she earned in 2019. As a resident of Washington State, Christina enjoys hiking, playing with her dog, and writing fiction and non-fiction pieces.

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