Does anyone know why the term wildcatter became used for oil prospectors? I feel certain it must have some connection with the useage involving bullets, but I can't quite figure it out. And why were the bullets called wildcats, anyway?


It's really applied only to drilling in places not known to be productive and so the practice is actually wild in quite an ordinary sense. By extension, one who does it would also be seen as being wild. There's also the opporunity to see the territory being drilled as being wild relative to the established, productive sites. The term, "wildcat," as began to be applied during the late 1830's however, applied as much to financially irresponsible institutions such as "wildcat banks" as to oil or gas drilling. I wouldn't offer any speculations as why the cat, in particular, was chosen.
Lewis Joplin II
WILDCAT -- "A wildcat venture, such as a wildcat oil well, is generally a speculative one. The word 'wildcat' here comes from the term 'wildcat bank,' which originally referred to a Michigan bank that went bankrupt in the 1830s and had on its banknotes a prominent picture of a panther or wildcat." From the "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, 1997, New York).

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