Thursday, October 10, 2013

Thursday Trivia: The Cat's Meow

Today you get a twofer, because it turns out that you can’t look up the origin of the phrase “cat’s meow” without bumping squarely into “the cat’s pajamas.” These and other trendy phrases of their ilk were in wide use during the jazz era of the 1920’s.

Faraday thinks his meow is totally rad, too.
As you probably know, “the cat’s meow” is slang for “way cool,” “totally rad,” “dope,” or “wicked cool.” In other words, it refers to something trendy and highly desirable. The same goes for “the cat’s pajamas."

According to Word Wizard, these phrases initially depicted something shocking, outrageous and even a little bit scandalous:

“The idea of pajamas 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.”

There’s a whole lot of lore surrounding their origins. Some people believe that the cat reference in “cat’s pajamas” came from a late 19th century British slang term. (If something was ‘the Cheshire,’ it was something highly desired, because it would cause you ‘grin like a Cheshire cat.’)

The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins claims it has authenticated report of its use in Wellesley in 1918 and has found one report that they were common in a ladies seminary in Philadelphia in the mid 19th century. (A seminary? Scandalous!)

"These PJs may be one size too large for me..."
photo courtesy Jason Pier in DC
According to Random House’s Word Maven, lexicographers William and Mary Morris believe these cat expressions may have originated as a fad that began in girls' schools.

She quotes a book by Maurice Weseen, entitled “The Dictionary of American Slang,” which describes loads of other cat phrases that have the same meaning, like the cat's “adenoids, galoshes, cufflinks, and roller skates.”

(Doesn’t that sound just like a bunch of schoolgirls, trying to outdo one another?)

The Merriam Webster Dictionary tells us the first known use of the phrase “cat’s meow” in print dates back to 1926. But we actually found an earlier date. (Anyone want to volunteer to tell Merriam and Webster they have it wrong? Nah, us neither.)

As far as we can tell, the first published use we came across was this quote from Variety, on November 18, 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!”

But by far, our most favorite published quote of all is this one:

New York Times, November 6, 1922: 'PAJAMA GIRL AND CATS OUT':
“Sunday afternoon strollers in lower Fifth Avenue were treated to the unusual sight yesterday of a young woman clad in transparent yellow silk pajamas, escorted by four cats, also clad in pajamas, leisurely making her way along the avenue...”

Rumor has it that one of the policemen at the scene voiced his suspicion that the woman intended to get herself arrested: “Cat’s pajamas,” mused one of the patrolmen, “Wait a minute, I think there’s a publicity scheme afoot.”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Word Wizard
Etymology Online
Random House's Word Maven

Amy T. Peterson, Ann T. Kellogg, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through American History 1900 to the Present, volume 1, page 201, ABC-CLIO, 2008

The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd edition: Harper and Row, 1988.


  1. Well tomorrow's going to be the cats' meow as it is Friday yeeppeeeee! Have a tremendous Thursday.
    Best wishes Molly

  2. PJ'z Sexy..BOL.. We have never heard of the cat meow, we obviously don't get out much. Bawahwhahhwa xxooxxx

    Mollie and Alfie

  3. Well this post is just the "cat's meow". MOL!

    What a purrfect way to describe something cool! (cause efurrybody knows us kittehz are way cool)

  4. Well, Mommy says she hears Cat's Meows all the time... ;)
    We didn't know about Cat's pajamas. How interesting!

  5. Just as long as my human does not try to make ME wear pajamas, it's all cool.

  6. I don't always comment on these, but I do love it when you explore idioms..

  7. We really learned a lot from this post. Mom loves it when you do these. The "Cat's adenoids" especially amused her. We're telling Faraday to watch that a big ole fly doesn't fly into his mouth. Purrs and hugs, Lily Olivia, Mauricio, Misty May, Giulietta, Fiona, Astrid, Lisbeth and Calista Jo

  8. Apart from the fact that it is spelt pYjamas, that was one very informative post ;) MOL xx

    1. Maybe your from UK? The US spelling is correct as pajamas. It's the UK and Canada that spells it with a Y. I'm pretty sure the US did everything they could to distance themselves from the country they were trying to get away from.

  9. Great detective work on this one! The head peep loves saying the cat's pajamas because it always makes people laugh.

  10. Very nice information. In fact The Cats Pajamas!

  11. très intéressant, et on aime les images.
    ronrons d'Opale et SOnye

  12. That's really interesting. Nice job you did! We loved the same quote as the one you preferred and wished there was a picture of the scene ;-)

  13. PJ is my Dad's nickname for my I LIKE PJs!!!! I also like learning where these sayings come from....always interesting.

    Kitty Hugs, Sammy

  14. Wow, that's really interesting! We think your post is the Cat's meow ... or pajamas. :)

  15. I miaow like Sparkle = Just as long as my human does not try to make ME wear pajamas, it's all cool !!

  16. Every day is a school day!!


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