January 2, 2001
Valerie Stecher wrote:
The other day a friend of mine said, "She thinks he's the cat's pajamas." I know (think?) that it means 'something special', but I can't figure out where such a silly expression came from. Can you help?
The strange thing about the cat's pajamas is that most people, regardless of age, are familiar with the expression, and may even use it in their speech or writing. Today it's considered old-fashioned or quaint, and it's said with tongue in cheek or for effect, but it's definitely not dead.
It means 'a wonderful or remarkable person or thing'. But it nearly always implies stylishness and newness-it's 'the greatest thing since sliced bread'.
The cat's pajamas (and the cat's meow, the cat's whiskers), was a very popular expression in the 1920s, associated with the daring and unconventional jazz-age flappers. H.L. Mencken describes the flapper as a young woman who "has forgotten how to simper; she seldom blushes; and it is impossible to shock her." The lexicographers William and Mary Morris suggest that these "cat" expressions may have originated even earlier, first used in girls' schools. Alternatively, some sources attribute coinage to Tad Dorgan, sportswriter and cartoonist. The original use was definitely American, but the cat's pyjamas, the cat's miaow also caught on in England.
Maurice Weseen's Dictionary of American Slang lists more "cat" variants: "the cat's eyebrow, ankle, adenoids, tonsils, galoshes, cufflinks, roller skates, and cradle." Stuart Flexner, in I Hear America Talking, discusses similar expressions--"just about any combination of an animal, fish, or fowl with a part of the body or article of clothing that was inappropriate for it: the bee's knees, the snake's hips, the clam's garter, the eel's ankle, the elephant's instep, the tiger's spots, the leopard's stripes, the sardine's whiskers, the pig's wings." Other sources list "the kipper's knickers, the duck's quack, the gnat's elbow, the elephant's (fallen) arches, the bullfrog's beard, the canary's tusks, the cuckoo's chin, the butterfly's book, the caterpillar's kimono, the turtle's neck."
Except for the bee's knees which rhymes, the other expressions don't make much sense. A cat's persistent meow and a duck's quack is annoying to some people, and they don't exactly express approval and satisfaction. At least a cat does have a meow and whiskers, but pajamas, galoshes, or eyebrows, no. Reasonable explanations include the fact that cat's whiskers was the term for hair-thin wires used in tuning wireless crystal sets, and pajamas were a relatively new fashion in the 1920s.
WORDS@RANDOM | The Mavens' Word of the Day | Sensitive Language
How to Choose A Dictionary | Book Search
|Copyright © 1995-2008 Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.