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The meaning and origin of the expression: The cat's pajamas

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The cat's pajamas

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'The cat's pajamas'?

If something is said to be the cat's pajamas it is excellent - the highest quality.

What's the origin of the phrase 'The cat's pajamas'?

The cat's pajamasBefore we start let's get the spelling of pajamas out of the way. The most commonly used spelling worldwide is 'pajamas'. In the UK we prefer 'pyjamas'. There's no right or wrong about this - the word derives from the Persian and Urdu word pay-jama, so you might say pajamas and pyjamas have an equal claim to authenticity. I've opted here for the spelling normally used in the USA as that is where 'the cat's pajamas' was coined.

In the 1920s the urban east-coast cities of the USA were a breeding ground for new and wacky modes of expression. The bright young things of the flapper era wanted to throw off anything old or stuffy in fashion, music and language. Many new, and for the most part nonsense, animal related expressions were coined to denote excellence. These included the snake's hips, the kipper's knickers, the monkey's eyebrows and so on. Of the many such phrases only the bee's knees and the cat's pajamas remain in regular use.

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'The cat's pajamas' is a nonsense phrase but there is some sense behind it.
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There is a related 'cat' expression - 'the cat's whiskers'. This has been used as a term of excellence, both in the 1920s and up until today, but differs from the other flapper era expressions in that, as well as a literal reference to the whiskers of a cat, it was the name of the thin tuning wires on early crystal radio sets. As an existing term it got swept up and included in the many terms for excellence.

The cat's pajamas is a little different from the other similar 'animal' expressions as it was in prior use outside of 1920s New York circles. The earliest example of it that I can find in print is from the South Carolina newspaper The Pageland Journal, February 1918:

Wouldn't that beat the cat's pajamas?

Another thing which makes 'the cat's pajamas' stand out from the crowd is that it isn't just a fanciful reference to an animal. 'Cat' was flapper slang for fashionable young woman. This was later taken up by jazz circles and morphed into a name for one of either sex who exhibited style, as cool cat and hepcat.

By the mid 1920s the US phrases the cat's eyebrows/pajamas had become well enough established to have travelled to the UK, as seen in this extract from the London newspaper The Daily Herald, May 1923:

"Oh, you lovers of Rudolph [Valentino] - He is the cat's eyebrows."
If you have studied the American language you will know that this is the highest of all praise, except perhaps "he is the cat's pyjamas."

The cat's pajamasThe Cat's Pajamas was so fashionable a term as to be taken up as the name of many things in the 1920s - a dance, a stage show, a song, a film, even the name of a style of furry underwear.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.

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