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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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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.

Hobo

There but for fortune.

Dear Word Detective: I was asking a co-worker what costume her kids were choosing for Halloween and she mentioned how costumes are more complex today compared with the past when a kid could just put on old clothes and tie a bundle on a stick and go as a “hobo.” I commented that she was dating herself with that term and we discussed the more politically correct terms, from “homeless” to “outdoorsman” (that euphemism sounds like someone who reads “Field and Stream”). I looked at the dictionary for hobo and it says “origin unknown” and it is not in your archives. I hope you have more than just “origin unknown.” Any theories? — Martin Celusnak.

Well, if it’s theories you’re looking for, you’ve hit pay dirt. We have bushels of theories about all sorts of things, from why cats stare at blank walls (they’re messing with your mind) to why so many Americans drive like morons these days (NASCAR is the one sport many couch potatoes are, unfortunately, equipped to emulate).

As for “hobo,” there are quite a few theories about its origins as well, but I must admit from the git-go that certainty on the question remains, shall we say, elusive. Incidentally, I had never heard “outdoorsman” as a euphemism for “homeless.” I think whoever came up with it (no doubt in a warm, dry place) should spend a week sleeping under a highway overpass and then reassess his or her obnoxious invention.

A “hobo” is, of course, a homeless person, specifically one who travels or wanders in search of work or odd jobs. (The traditional explanation of the difference between a “hobo” and a “tramp” is that the former travels to find work, the latter to avoid it.) The classic “hobo” who travels by hopping rides on freight trains first appeared in the US after the Civil War, and the “hobo” population exploded during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The term “hobo” is first attested in print in the late 1800s in the Pacific Northwest, and almost immediately theories arose as to its origin. The English dialect terms “hawbuck” and “hawbaw,” meaning “an unmannerly lout” (Oxford English Dictionary) have been proposed as sources, but England was a world away from the Northwest US in those days. A more logical local source may have been the greeting shout “Ho, boy!” apparently common among railroad workers at the time. There’s also a suggestion that “hobo” is short for “hopping boxcars,” and some maintain that “hobo” is short for Hoboken, NJ, where many rail lines converged in the 19th century, making the city a natural gathering point for vagabonds.

While we may never pin down the origin of “hobo” with absolute certainty, my money is riding on that “Ho, boy!” shout, which was verifiably in use by railway workers at the time and could easily have been adopted as a name for their vagabond passengers.

Nauseous/nauseating/nauseated

The Elements of Silly.

Dear Word Detective: What’s the state-of-the-art on “nauseous”? I was told that it was a synonym for “nauseating,” not “nauseated,” but the Merriam-Webster dictionary seems to have given up on that. I saw it used in no less prestigious a source than The Economist to mean “nauseated.” Not that etymology will ever stand in the way of practice, but I’d at least like to know if this actually a change, or if it was just somebody being pedantic. — Joshua Engel.

Oh boy, a usage question. Let’s see how many people I can tick off this time. If I play my cards right, half my own family won’t be speaking to me when I’m done.

Long story short? The “rule” concerning “nauseous” and “nauseated” that you (and nearly everyone else) encountered in school is without either logical substance or historical justification. It is and always was “just somebody being pedantic” (albeit a lot of somebodies in a lot of grammar books).

It is true that the root of “nauseous” is the Latin “nauseosus,” meaning “causing nausea,” which would tend to buttress the traditional “puce wallpaper is nauseous; people seeing it become nauseated” school of thought. But, as you note, etymology is not destiny, and most of our English words have wandered far from their origins, so the Latin “nauseosus” is not a compelling argument.

A glance at the actual use of “nauseous” in the history of written English leaves the “nauseous means nauseating” camp with a problem. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the “causing nausea” usage to 1628, but lists the meaning “inclined to sickness or nausea; squeamish” to fifteen years earlier, in 1613. So the claim that the “causing nausea” meaning is the pure original meaning won’t fly.

More importantly, most of the objections to the use of “nauseous” to mean “feeling ill” have arisen only since the end of World War II, but (according to the excellent Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage) the actual use of “nauseous” in the supposedly proper “makes-me-sick” sense has dropped sharply in learned prose since before WW II and almost everyone today uses “nauseating.” Even E.B. White, after reciting the standard “rule” about nauseous/nauseated in Strunk & White’s revered Elements of Style (1979), lapsed into using “nauseating” rather than “nauseous” elsewhere in his own book.

As it stands now in the real world, “nauseating” is doing the duty of meaning “causing nausea or disgust,” and “nauseous” is almost always used as a synonym of “nauseated” to mean “feeling sick or disgusted.” The only danger in using “nauseous” to mean “feeling sick” is that you may run into people who are erroneously convinced that the usage is wrong, which brings us to one of those Dirty Harry moments: Are you feeling lucky?