The Cat’s Pajamas

By Maeve Maddox

Not everyone loves cats, but the language has its share of expressions coined from the appearance and behavior of these slinky domestic companions.

The slang of the 1920s leaned towards expressions involving animal anatomy, giving us the cat’s meow and the cat’s whiskers, both meaning “outstanding!” It also gave us a non-anatomical cat expression the cat’s pajamas, meaning “the absolute best” or “really modern and up-to-date.”

NOTE: Pajamas were a fairly recent cultural adaptation in the 1920s. The word derives from Hindi pajama, the word for “loose trousers tied at the waist.” Europeans living in the East adopted the comfortable style for nightwear and the fashion eventually found its way to the West. British spelling favors pyjamas.

cat – In the 1920s a slang word for flapper was “cat,” (hence the connection of the cat’s pajamas to the idea of modernity), but in black slang the word meant “man, guy, dude.” What it means to call a person “a cat” varies according to context. To call a man a cat is to imply that he’s cool. To call a woman a cat is to insult her.

catnap – a short sleep, usually in the daytime. I suppose power nap is the more current term. Question: what does one wear while taking a cat nap? Answer: Why, the cat’s pajamas, of course!

having no room to swing a cat – being in a confined space. When I was little, I imagined a poor cat being swung through the air by its tail. I finally learned that the “cat” in this expression derives from a term for a whip used to flog sailors in the Royal Navy in the old days. It had nine thongs instead of one.

to rain cats and dogs – to rain very hard; possibly from the expression to fight like cats and dogs.

catkin – the furry flowers of trees like willow, birch and oak. The name derives from the soft, “pettable” texture of the flowers.

catcall – rude remarks shouted at sporting events

catfish – a fish with whiskers. (Yum)

catwalk – a high narrow walkway like those seen on construction sites. The idea is that only a cat could keep its balance.

cat’s-cradle – A game in which a string is looped on the fingers to form an intricate pattern between a player’s hands that can be successively varied or transferred to another player’s hands. Whether the word derived from the animal’s name is anyone’s guess.

catsup – A condiment consisting of a thick, smooth-textured, spicy sauce usually made from tomatoes. This word has absolutely nothing to do with cats and, in its original form, had nothing to do with tomatoes. It’s from Malay kichap from Chinese koechiap “brine of fish.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, catsup (earlier catchup)

is a failed attempt at Anglicization, still in use in the U.S.”

Apparently it was the Americans who added the tomatoes to the original concoction. Also spelled ketchup.

catty-corner – directional word, meaning that something is diagonally across from something else–another “cat” word that has nothing to do with cats. Originally cater-corner. The cater is from an English dialect word meaning “to set or move diagonally.” Because that cater dropped out of the language, folk etymology got busy and now we have all kinds of “cat” variants for this concept:
catty-cornered
kitty-corner
kitty-cornered
catty-corner
cat-a-corner
kitty-corner
kit-a-corner

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7 Responses to “The Cat’s Pajamas”

  • Brad K.

    Wow, man! This article is the bee’s knees!

  • danielle

    I agree! But then anything that connects writing…and kitties, can’t be wrong!

    Danielle

  • Charlie

    ‘no room to swing a cat’ The cat was the thonged whip – cat o’ nine tails. Then there is –
    cat’s meow – really top of the line
    cat’s paw – the fall guy who doesn’t know he is
    fat cat – the guy with all the goods, money
    cat’s eye – gem stone
    copy cat – one who mimics another
    – this is just the tip of the list, eh?

  • Al G.

    This may be a tad off the subject but I’m reminded of Huckleberry Finn’s description of how to use a dead cat to get rid of warts:

    “Why, you take your cat and go and get in the graveyard ‘long about midnight when somebody that was wicked has been buried; and when it’s midnight a devil will come, or maybe two or three, but you can’t see ’em, you can only hear something like the wind, or maybe hear ’em talk; and when they’re taking that feller away, you heave your cat after ’em and say, ‘Devil follow corpse, cat follow devil, warts follow cat, I’m done with ye!’ That’ll fetch any wart.”

    This was followed by the explanation that you can do this on Monday when a bad man died on Saturday, because the witches’ charms wouldn’t work until midnight and then it was Sunday, and “Devils don’t slosh around much of a Sunday, I don’t reckon.”

    But that’s way off topic –

  • Armand De Cesare

    With reference to “having no room to swing a cat”… I recall another related term we used in the navy: “a cat o’ nine tails” because it had, as pointed out in the description, nine “thongs.” “Thongs,” it seems to me seems a little tame considering their function.

  • Aaarti

    Wow, this was super cool post!!! 🙂

  • Lana

    As to “rain cats and dogs”, here is what I heard: long time ago houses had no roofs. Once, when a tornado struck, it lifted small animals, such as dogs and cats, and deposited them in other places, dropping them from the sky as a rain everywhere, including through the roofless tops of homes. Hence is an expression…when it rains hard.

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