Final Word

Is the Zupta kitty about to come home?


The controversial Gupta family, who allegedly captured the South African state by getting President Jacob Zuma in their bag, has been creating a huge offshore ‘kitty’ for themselves, and probably for some of their benefactors.

That seems to be one of the clear implications of the application that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan filed with the Supreme Court in Pretoria, seeking a declaration that he cannot interfere with bank’s business with the Guptas. And it could be a ‘kitty’ of quite some substance, considering that Minister Gordhan has listed 72 “suspicious” transactions adding up to some R6.8 billion.

As is the case with Guptas, the word ‘kitty’ cannot be pinned down easily. The most common context in which the word is nowadays used is in the sense of creating a money pool or reserve for a specific purpose, like making provision for a potential crisis or to finance a specific project. The use of the term in this sense of the word dates back to the early 19th century.


There are quite a number of theories in various sources of where and how the term originated. One of the more interesting, and plausible, theories we find on, which states: “Around the 1300s, the Middle Dutch word kit (also spelled kyt, kitt or kitte) referred to a wooden tub, barrel, pail, jug or tankard. If tools were put into this container, it became a toolkit, and if medicinal tools were put into it, it became a medical kit, but if money was put into a small container, it was just known as a kit, kitte or a kitty. This theory seems to be a favourite amongst etymologists.”

There is nevertheless very little doubt that the term as referring to a pot of money was some time ago adopted by gamblers when playing poker. From there the theory that the term arose “from the name Catherine which is sometimes nicknamed to Kitty. Poker playing was often done in environments where prostitutes were around, and a ‘Kitty’ was a term often applied to one of these ladies.

“The story goes that the poker players would toss their coin bets into the laps of the nearby watching Kittys, and thus the term ‘kitty’ arose to refer to the pool of money.” This theory, however, isn’t particularly favoured by etymologists.

Then there is a theory that ‘kitty’ comes from so-called Cockney rhyming slang. The argument going that ‘kitty cat’ is rhyming slang for hat, and since money in poker games was often tossed into a hat, this became known as the ‘kitty’.

Most appropriate theory

Considering where we started off with this column, the most appropriate theory listed by and the one of which those involved in ‘Guptagate’ should take note, goes:

“Kitty is an old slang-term for prison, and it could be that the term was transferred to mean a ‘pot of imprisoned money’ because the money was not allowed to be removed until the kitty was full.”

Final word

For some of those involved in ‘Guptagate’ this last theory – tentatively proposed as ‘possibly’ correct by the Oxford English Dictionary – it might mean that their offshore ‘kitty’ could become another ‘kitty’ at home.

by Piet Coetzer

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