This phrase has been a source of much contention, and many different derivations have been given; but all tend to show that it means a complete turn over, that is, to quit one side and go to the other, to turn traitor, to turncoat. "To turn cat in pan: Prcevaricor" (Ainsworth). Bacon, in his Essays " On Cunning," p. 81, says: "There is a cunning which we in England call ' the turning of the cat in the pan,' which is when that a man says to another, 'he lays it as if another had said it to him.'" This is somewhat obscure in definition. Toone says: "The proverbial expression, 'to turn a cat in a pan,' denotes a sudden change in one's party, or politics, or religion, for the sake of being in the ascendant, as a cat always comes down on its legs, however thrown." The Vicar of Bray is quoted as simply a "turncoat," but this does not affect the argument. I quite think, and in this others agree with me, that it has nothing to do with the cat, but was originally cate. In olden times, and until lately, it was the custom to toss pancakes (to turn them over). It was no easy matter; frequently the cake or cate went in the fire or lodged in the chimney. To turn the cat or cate in the pan was to toss and turn it completely ever, that is, from one side to the other.
The meaning given to the phrase helps to prove this view. I merely introduce this because so many have asked for an explanation as regards "the cat in pan." I consider the " far-fetched " origins of the term are complete errors. It was a custom to toss pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, and it required great skill to do it well, cleanly, and completely. Some cooks were noted for it, and thought clever if it was done without injury to themselves or clothes.
It appears from "The Westmoreland Dialect," by A. Walker (1790), that cock-fighting and "casting" of pancakes were then common in that county, thus: " Whaar ther wor tae be cock-feightin', for it war pankeak Tuesday," and "we met sum lads an' lasses gangin' to kest (cast) their pankeaks."