The idea of pajamas (see posting ‘pajama’) for women to wear in bed in the late 19th and early 20th century was, a shockingly new idea, and thought to be sexy, daring, and avant-garde. By the 1920s the word had found its way into the expression “the cat’s pajamas,” which was reportedly first used in girls and women’s schools and colleges, and was at first considered outrageous (see 2nd 1921 quote below). The expression evidently caught on and became the with-it term for something extraordinary, excellent, splendid and delightful. This phrase and its many relatives (see Word Detective below) were considered ‘satisfyingly’ modern, clever, and slangy by flappers and sheiks of the 1920s and the emerging ‘cool cats’ and wannabes of the jazz age. By 1928 many of the ‘cat’ expressions where being abbreviated as just “it’s the cat’s.”
The cat has held a respected place in many cultures. The goddess Bast was portrayed as having the head of a cat. The cat was a symbol of liberty in ancient Rome and the goddess of Liberty was represented with a cat at her feet. And a few millennia later in the age of jazz a ‘cool cat’ or ‘cat’ became a self-assured and knowing one, and was considered by many, a good thing to be.
Some think that the cat part of “cat’s pajamas” derived from ‘the Cheshire,’ a British slang term meaning the correct or desired thing, because such a thing makes you ‘grin like a Cheshire cat’ – the 18th century British simile. The grinning Cheshire cat was an expression appropriated and popularized by Carroll and which predated Alice in Wonderland (1865) by well over a century – the expression appearing in a 1770 work by English satirist John Walcot <“Lo like a Cheshire cat our Court will grin”>. Now why the Cheshire cat was grinning, and why it is called that, is another story. Lexicographer Partridge surmised, but couldn’t prove, that the ‘Cheshire’ in ‘Cheshire cat’ derived from the word ‘cheeser’ (not the city of Cheshire), a cat very fond of cheese who has just eaten some. Others believe that Cheshire cheese (of the city Cheshire) was once sold molded like a cat that appeared to be grinning. Still others believe that the grinning cat derives from the work of a Cheshire area sign painter who painted inn signs for such local establishments as the Red Lion. None too sure of the appearance of that beast, he might have painted his signs with a crest containing the lion rampant, which perhaps turned out to look more like a grinning pussy cat than the majestic king of the jungle
By the way, if you were wondering, the city of Cheshire derives its name from ‘Chester’ which means the camp or fort. The Britons originally called it Legacchestir, meaning the camp of the legions. This was then shortened to Chester, a corruption of the Latin word ‘castra’ military camp, fort, fortress. To further confuse things a native of Cheshire became known in the late 19th century as a ‘Cheshire cat’ or often just ‘cat.’ [Hr<1865 “‘Please would you tell me said Alice a little timidly . . . ‘why your cat grins like that?’ ‘It’s a Cheshire cat,’ said the Duchess, ‘ and that’s why.’–‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll, chapter vi>
CAT’S PAJAMAS: 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” [[‘sic’]]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." [[also “cat’s nuts,” and “cat’s kittens.”]]. 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.
Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins
CAT’S MEOW / PAJAMAS / WHISKERS: These are slang expressions from the 1920s all designating excellence. Clara Bow, the ‘it’ girl of those long-gone days, was “the cat’s meow,” in the opinion of millions of silent-screen admirers. In Percy Marks once-famed but now forgotten novel, ‘The Plastic Age’(1924), occurs this eminently forgettable passage: “It’s a good poem. It’s the cat’s pajamas.” Before these expressions gained wide popularity in the ‘jazz age,’ they were apparently well known in girls’ schools. We have an authenticated report for their currency in Wellesley in 1918 and one report that they were common in a ladies seminary in Philadelphia in the mid 19th century. [[OED defines mid-19th century as 1830-1869, so that is cutting it a bit close, but is, I suppose, possible for ‘pajamas’ which reportedly first appeared in print in English in about 1870 – but strikes me as a little shaky!]]
<1921 ‘A good letter, Quig, one like that every month would be the “CAT’S MEOW.’—‘Pirate Piece,’ April>
<1921 “A general order has been sent out from the Keith office to all Keith, Moss and Proctor (vaudeville) houses, instructing resident managers to hereafter bar the use of the current slang phrases, “That’s the CAT’S MEOW,” “CAT’S PAJAMAS,” “Hot Dog,” “Hot Cat,” etc. This means the phrases are not to be used by artists in dialog or if occurring in pop songs . . . One currently pop song has for its title and catchline, “He’s the CAT’S MEOW!”—'Variety,’ 18 November>
<1922 “Hot dog! It was the CAT’S PAJAMAS.”—‘Dialect Notes,’ V. page 146>,
<1923 “Everything was either ‘classy’ or ‘swell’ or ‘nobby’ or . . . even ‘the CAT’S PAJAMAS.’”–‘Best Stories of 1923’ by O’Brien, page 186>.
<1923 “I must be ze CAT’S WHISKERS.”—‘Nashville Banner, 4 January, page 14>
<1923 “Everything was . . . “The CAT’S WHISKERS” or even . . . “the CAT’S PAJAMAS.”—‘Best Stories of 1923’ by O’Brien, pages 186-7>
<1930 “It’s the CAT’S NUTS, Ike.” [reference to ca. 1910]—‘42nd Parallel’ by Dos Passos, page 58>
(Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Oxford English Dictionary
, Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang
, Flexner’s Listening to America
, Urdang’s Picturesque Expressions, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang
Ken G – February 2, 2003
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
Only to add the British expression "dog's bollocks", which was thought to have originated as a term for the colon dash ":-" in printing, but is now widely used in the UK in the same meaning as "bee's knees" etc.
Reply from Phil White (Munich - Germany)
Oh, and surely "the bee's knees" is just a whimsical mispronunciation of "the business".
Reply from Simon Beck (London - England)