The Grammarphobia Blog

The cat’s pajamas

Q: The origin of “the cat’s pajamas,” a subject that came up while Pat was on WNYC, is nicely told in Tad Tuleja’s The Cat’s Pajamas. Meow!

A: We assume you’re writing this with tongue in cheek, since Tuleja’s book is a humorous compilation of imagined origins—or “fakelore,” as he puts it—and not serious etymology.

As for “the cat’s pajamas” (or “pyjamas”), the expression was coined by the cartoonist T. A. (Tad) Dorgan (1877-1929), according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

Dorgan is also credited with coining “the cat’s meow,” though not “the cat’s whiskers.” All three expressions mean someone or something that’s outstanding.

(An early “whiskers” example is from a 1923 item in the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press that plugs the paper’s want ads as “the ‘cat’s whiskers,’ which, being translated for college presidents means they are o k—they get quick results.”)

These “caticisms” are examples of zoological whimsy from the flapper era that we discussed in a blog posting last year.

Similar feline phrases include “the cat’s cuffs,” “the cat’s lingerie,” “the cat’s mac,” and “the cat’s spats,” according to Green’s Dictionary.

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