What's So Special About the Cat's Pajamas?

Bettmann/CORBIS / Bettmann/CORBIS

Yesterday reader Nyghtbeauty asked, "What’s so special about 'the cat’s pajamas'?" We decided to find out.

Not much, really. The cat's pajamas are no better than the gnat's elbow, the elephant's instep or the cuckoo's chin, which all entered the lexicon in the 1920s and mean the same thing.

“The cat’s pajamas” is first recorded in 1920 as part of the typical vocabulary of Jazz Age flappers and was soon popularized by cartoonist Tad Dorgan in his comic strip Indoor Sports. It's just one of dozens of nonsense phrases combining an animal with a part of the human body or an article of clothing that the cool kids used in those days. Here are others: the duck's quack, bee's knees, elephant's wrist, eel's ankles, elephant's arches, bullfrog's beard, and leopard's stripes.

But does it mean anything?

That's up for debate, and etymologists don't have a definitive answer. It might really just be nonsense that some hipster kid came up with. It might be a Mondegreen, originating from the mishearing of another phrase. It might be a double entendre. A number of these phrases — the cat's pajamas, the cat's meow, the sardine's whiskers, the clam's garter — may be suggestive of a certain piece of female anatomy (cats had been associated with genitalia for about a century prior). Anyone have another hypothesis they'd like to propose?

(And if you're wondering, here's the original caption to the photo: "Betty Marr holds 'Elmaria Blue Amos,' the latter dressed in pajamas, at the Cat Fashion Show held at the Bamberger Department Store, in Newark, New Jersey (1935).")