The pathetic plea of a lady who is being overrun with collectible cats has been haunting Miss Manners since just after last Christmas.

"I have over the years shared my home with several charming felines," this Gentle Reader wrote at that time, "but I never expressed the least interest in becoming a repository of kitty curios. At quite an early age--after admiring a neighbor's extensive display of miniature china cats and other kitty keepsakes--I quietly resolved never to risk becoming known as the local 'cat lady' by amassing a similar collection."

Nevertheless, family and friends, having taken note of her pets, deluge the poor lady with what she calls "cat clutter," persisting even when there is no such animal in residence.

"Over the last seven years, during which my home has been sadly free of cats," the lady continued, "I have been presented with cat calendars, cat jewelry, a dried gourd painted with a cat's face, a sweater with a cat design and sundry cat refrigerator magnets and other trinkets." Last year, "with a sense of impending doom, I unwrapped what proved to be a lamp in the shape of a cat."

Aside from aesthetic fright, Miss Manners is unsettled by the resigned attitude of her Gentle Reader: "I know how difficult it is to find the right gift year after year, and I certainly don't expect that every present will be exactly what I wanted. I am prepared to look forward to the next several decades of cat-related gifts with patient resignation, if that is my fate. But first, can you suggest a way to gently guide my friends and family away from their feline fixation?"

Oops. Miss Manners is proud to be associated with the kind of politeness that this lady exhibits. Not for the world would she have her be ungracious to those who unwillingly caused her affliction. But does Miss Manners also bear responsibility for the problem?

She has long been fighting the depersonalization of present-giving by urging people to make their own observations of what might be welcome. And when these people looked around, they saw cats. True, that would have been at least seven years ago, but the information got firmly registered. Even when the cats were gone, they might have seen the kitty litter that had been foisted upon the lady as earlier presents.

It is true that under the meaningful tradition, mistakes are made and must be graciously tolerated, as this lady has been doing. But Miss Manners cannot, in good conscience, refuse this request for help. There should be advance protection from mistakes that are both blatant and repeated, which would also include turkeys to vegetarians, funky things to confirmed modernists, toys to which the child's parents are known to object.

She therefore begs present-givers to reexamine any set ideas they may have about who likes what. Aside from the possibility of these being mistaken in the first place, tastes and habits change, collections get completed or too refined for the nonspecialist's contribution, and people move on.

On the unwilling receiving end, she advises negative hinting. Positive hinting is something most people know how to do only too well, and Miss Manners only allows it when it does not cross the line from hinting ("This telephone is driving me crazy") to demanding ("Here's the model I want").

Negative hinting is, "My cat collection seems to be complete now, so I'm thinking of donating it to the animal clinic, where the people who work there will be able to enjoy it," or, after the fact, "How wonderful, thank you--now my collection is absolutely complete and I'll have to take up something else." Just don't let anyone know what that something else is.

Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.

(c)1999, Judith Martin