Would you like to tell your grandfather that the birthday gift he got for you is excellent? You could say it is the “cat’s pajamas.”
This post unpacks the origins and meaning of this once-trendy saying that has now become archaic.
The American nonsense phrase “the cat’s pajamas” dates back to the early 20th century. It means that something is excellent, wonderful, brilliant, exquisite, or of the highest quality.
The expression “the cat’s pajamas” is informal but not slang. Once highly fashionable, the saying has largely fallen out of use now. Older people are much more likely to say something is the cat’s pajamas than younger generations.
Are you considering adding “the cat’s pajamas” to your everyday vocabulary? You’ll want to get a closer understanding of the contexts in which people used to use this phrase first:
- “Thank you, Uncle Adam! This new video game really is the cat’s pajamas, as they used to say in your day! Sick, man!”
- “Why would you think I don’t like you or your style? You are quirky and unusual, but I think you’re the cat’s pajamas.”
- “Language is there to play with, and I think the nonsense rhyming phrases that emerged in 1920s America are the cat’s pajamas.”
The phrase “the cat’s pajamas” was one of many to emerge during the so-called flapper era in the 1920s.
Flappers were a cultural phenomenon of young women on the US East Coast who obsessed over jazz music, wore their hair in bobs, smoked, drank, and drove fast cars.
This movement sought to get rid of old norms and embrace modern fashion — by any means necessary. Playing with language by inventing new phrases was an integral part of the flapper era, and the new terms often rhymed.
Flappers embraced positivity, and many of the nonsense rhyming phrases that emerged during this era describe “wonderful” or “superb” things.
Synonyms for “the cat’s pajamas” that entered the stage during the 1920s include:
- The snake’s hips.
- The monkey’s eyebrows.
- The spider’s ankles.
- The ant’s pants.
- The cat’s meows.
- The dog’s bollocks.
You will immediately notice that all these phrases involve animals. The rhyming phrases coined during the early 20th century often referred to body parts or clothes the animals in question don’t actually have. For example, snakes don’t have hips, and ants definitely don’t wear pants.
Linguistic trends can be just as short-lived as fashion and music choices, and most of these curious phrases have been laid to rest in the linguistic graveyards.
Only two survive, albeit barely. “The bee’s knees” is one, and “the cat’s pajamas” is the other 1920s rhyming phrase to claim that honor.
Phrases Similar to Cat’s Pajamas
“The bee’s knees” is the other 1920’s rhyming phrase to survive into the 21st century. It means “great” or “wonderful,” just like “the cat’s pajamas.”
Other idioms with similar meanings include:
- The best thing since sliced bread.
- Tickled pink — meaning you’re extremely excited about something.
- On cloud nine — meaning you’re very happy about something.
Phrases Opposite to Cat’s Pajamas
The opposite of “the cat’s pajamas,” meaning something wonderful, is something terrible. You could say:
- Something is a bummer — meaning a misfortune or something unpleasant.
- You have a sinking feeling — meaning you feel something terrible will happen.
More modern phrases include “that sucks” and “that is shit.”
What Is the Correct Saying?
The correct saying is “the cat’s pajamas.” This expression means something is excellent, very good, or the best.
Ways People May Say Cat’s Pajamas Incorrectly
British people may say that something is “the cat’s pyjamas.” The word “pajamas” comes from Persian and was transliterated to English, with British and American spelling differing.
Because “the cat’s pajamas” emerged in the United States, some would consider this British spelling incorrect. You should write “pyjamas” only if you use British spelling.
Acceptable Ways to Phrase Cat’s Pajamas
You can say that something or someone is “the cat’s pajamas” whenever you want to say “wonderful” or “awesome.”
Remember that this phrase is dated. Even though “the bee’s knees” and “the cat’s pajamas” have survived thus far, younger people probably won’t know what you are talking about.