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shameless pleading

Cat’s pajamas

Ours just wear those little fur suits.

Dear Word Detective: What is the derivation of the phrase “cat’s pajamas”? I think it means the hottest new craze, but I don’t know where it came from or why. I’ve never seen a cat wearing pajamas, or anything else for that matter, although my dog does have a chenille sweater. — Susan.

A chenille sweater. For your dog. And the dog actually wears said sweater? Our dog Brownie also has a thing for clothes, but with a slight difference. She regards them as a very special kind of food. So far, by my count, she has eaten six or seven socks, assorted mittens and gloves, and at least one small scarf. I guess the poor thing must have an Orlon deficiency in her diet.

“The cat’s pajamas” does indeed mean “the hottest new thing” or “great, wonderful” (as in “Fred’s new car is the cat’s pajamas; Fred himself, not so much”). But I’m wondering where you’re running into “the cat’s pajamas” these days, because the phrase itself is nearing its one-hundredth anniversary. “The cat’s pajamas” is first recorded in 1920 as part of the typical vocabulary of the “flappers,” young women whose avant-garde wardrobe and free-spirited disregard for popular mores epitomized the spirit of the Roaring Twenties. The term “flapper” itself had appeared about 1915 (although an antecedent meaning of “young prostitute” was current in the late 19th century), and was most likely an adaptation of “flapper” in the 18th century sense of “a young duck or partridge” (i.e., one given to much flapping but inept flight).

According to Stuart Berg Flexner’s “Listening to America” (1982), “the cat’s pajamas” was one of a number of nonsense phrases invented in the flapper period, often on the template of combining an animal, the more unlikely the better, with a part of the human body or an article of clothing. Thus “the cat’s pajamas” seems to have inspired a rash of similar phrases also meaning “excellent,” including “the bee’s knees,” “the clam’s garters,” “the eel’s ankles,” “the gnat’s elbow,” “the pig’s wings” and my personal fave, “the sardine’s whiskers.” While none of these phrases or dozens of others have any intrinsic logic (don’t go looking for an eel’s ankle, in other words), the formula does have the advantage of nearly infinite variation, and one can easily imagine a hipster of the day poring over zoology textbooks in search of ever more exotic species with which to wow the gang.

While “the cat’s pajamas” doesn’t really mean anything, it is worth noting that in 1920 pajamas were still a relatively new form of sleep apparel (as opposed to nightshirts and nightgowns), and thus were still considered slightly risque, especially for young women.

5 comments to Cat’s pajamas

  • sayling

    I always thought that this line of phrases stemmed from “the bee’s knees”, which was a humorous corruption of “the business”, i.e. “with his new suit, Dave looked the bee’s knees”.

    As with many such plays on words, once it captures the imagination of the people, they string together derivations and similar phrases…

    … but I’m no detective ;)

  • sayling

    In fact, now I’ve read the whole column, isn’t this almost a classic case of a mondegreen?

    :)

  • cud

    The tendency of young women to abscond with my sleep apparel after spending the night, tends to indicate (to me any way) that the “cat” here is of the sense “cool cat” or “dude” and the pajamas are actual pajamas.

    This is positive in a similar sense as wearing a necklace of your enemy’s teeth.

    Or; is it possible that the use of “cat” to refer to a person, and the associated pajama stealing could have both arisen from this phrase which originally was a non-sequitur as you suggest?

  • Flappette

    Every generation thinks they’re the first to discover sex. The flappers of the 1920s were no different. Much like the youth of any generation, jargon and code words are used to distinguish the “in crowd,” as well as slip things by the older generational “out crowd.” So rather than nonsense phrases, you might consider how some jargon could come to mean “excellent,” “great,” or “wonderful” within genders.

    So yes, “the sardine’s whiskers” can refer to a particular anatomy. No different than a cat’s whiskers, with the cat being a feline, or a particular anatomy of a female. Thus the “cat’s pajamas” are referring to a particular item of female underwear. We can also see the definition of “the cat’s meow.” When a flapper’s hemline was above the top of the stocking (think Betty Boop), the thin line of visible skin was known as “the cat’s meow.” The flirtatous presence of a cat via a “meow” without the cat actually being seen.

    Of course it wasn’t just about women. The “snake’s hips,” or “eel’s ankles” (why plural) have their own meaning as well.

  • Colin Boyd

    A friend of ours was deceived by a similar mondegreen. She thought that, in the same way that a group of sheep is called a flock, and a group of fish is called a school, that a group of kittens is called a caboodle.

    She had always misunderstood the meaning of “the whole kit and caboodle.”

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