Both of these expressions have nearly identical meanings and are used to describe something or someone as being really, really, excellent, as well as new and exciting, with a little bit of sexiness thrown in.
“Wow, look at Sally, she’s a stunner, alright. She’s definitely the cat’s pajamas!”
“Yeah, and that blue dress she’s wearing is a knockout, it’s the cat’s meow!”
Because they sound dated, “the cat’s pajamas” and “the cat’s meow” are used today to provide an added effect of quaintness and coyness to a conversation. But people will know what you’re getting at if you use these expressions. They still convey the meaning of zingy special-ness that the phrases had during the Roaring Twenties, when these feline figures of speech seemed to have sprung out of nowhere to become immensely popular across America.
Origin? What Origin?
As usual in this blog I try to get at the origins of idioms I’m curious about or have an affection for, but interestingly enough, the research available on the Web regarding these two phrases is pretty sparse and perhaps not that reliable. Several word sleuths think a well-known newspaper cartoonist of the day, Thomas A. Dorgan (1877-1929), created, or at least popularized the phrases but I didn’t see any citings of his comic strips to support that idea.
Maybe, though, the story behind these two idioms is staring us in the face with twinkly cat eyes.
I Have a Theory…
Maybe the phrases spontaneously self-generated when some flappers or other hipsters of the 1920s visualized a cat wearing pajamas and thought that the sight would be quite “nifty” in itself and could be used to signify other people or things that were nifty, too. (“Nifty” is slang from the same decade for what we would now call “cool.”) Pajamas as a sleepwear style were first introduced to America in the 1920s and were considered quite fashion forward at the time.
And if the idea of a cat wearing pajamas could be so delightful, the same could be said about whatever might make a cat meow in delight. And thus, two figures of speech were born. Well, that’s my theory.
Anyway, by 1922, The New York Times quoted an unidentified flapper as describing a sundae as “the cat’s meow,” and by 1926 “the cat’s pajamas” was well known enough for Hollywood to use the phrase for the title of a comedy involving a cat, a seamstress, and an operatic tenor.
Cats ‘n’ Culture
It could be said that people in that wild decade were fixated on cats, among other things such as flagpole sitting and gold fish swallowing. After all, Felix the Cat was a favorite silent movie cartoon figure at the time, and a character called Krazy Kat was the main protagonist of a long running newspaper comic strip of the same name (1913 through 1944).
Krazy Kat to this day seems about as wild and weird as a mainstream comic could get. The strip, set in a surreal, mildly disturbing and disorienting American desert landscape, focuses on what can only be described as a love triangle involving Offissa Pupp, Ignatz the mouse, and the afore mentioned Krazy Kat (who in an interesting bit of gender confusion is alternately referred to as “he” or “she” by the other characters.)
I don’t get it, but the poet e.e. cummings was captivated by the comic strip, and the American cultural critic Gilbert Seldes in 1924 called the strip “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today.”
Betty Boop, the Cat’s Pajamas…
Talking cartoon figure Betty Boop first appeared in 1930, one year too late for the “Roaring Twenties.” But Ms. Boop personified that decade’s “flapper” female: adventurous, vivacious, provocative, and resourceful. She was, and is, the cat’s pajamas. Click to see Betty sing House Cleaning Blues.
And Marilyn Monroe, the Cat’s Meow…
Marilyn plays Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, singer and ukulele player in a 1920s all-female band with the exception of actors Tony Curtis (saxophone) and Jack Lemmon (base) who are masquerading as women in their attempt to hide after witnessing a gangland massacre. Marilyn IS the cat’s meow, forever. Click to watch her sing Running Wild from the film.
So this blog ends with the two individuals who to me personify “the cat’s pajamas” and “the cat’s meow” – Betty Boop and Marilyn Monroe.
Any arguments? No, I didn’t think so.