Category Archives: Top posts

Cat’s pajamas, bee’s knees and dog’s bollocks

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“You’re the cat’s whiskers!” one of my colleagues said to me recently. And I realized I didn’t know exactly what he meant — and it wasn’t an expression I had ever heard said aloud, except in old movies or shows set in the 1920s.

It was during that time that a whole collection of American expressions were coined to mean “an outstanding or excellent person or thing”, with overtones of style, class or newness (thank you Max! — although I’m pretty sure there was a touch of irony in your compliment …). The fad was to use the names of animals, body-parts and clothes in peculiar combinations, such as the flea’s eyebrows, the canary’s tusks, the eel’s ankle, the elephant’s instep, the clam’s garter, the snake’s hips, the kipper’s knickers, the sardine’s whiskers and the pig’s wings. Whereas most of these nonsensical expressions disappeared relatively quickly, three feline-themed terms — “cat’s pajamas”, “cat’s whiskers” and “cat’s miaow” — managed to stick around and they remain in use today, as does the rather charming “bee’s knees”.

As old-fashioned and archaic as they might sound today, these phrases were considered modern, clever and rather daring by the free-spirited flappers of the roaring 20s and the emerging ‘cool cats’ of the jazz age who bandied these words about. (Pajamas, by the way, were a new and fashionable article of clothing in the 1920s and therefore suitably hip for inclusion in this mod lingo.) So popular were these expressions that by the late 1920s, the ‘cat’ ones were sometimes abbreviated to just “it’s the cat’s.” All American by origin, they soon caught on in England as well. The lexicographers William and Mary Morris suggest that the “cat” phrases might have originated earlier than the ’20s, since they were reportedly first heard in girls’ schools and women’s colleges earlier in the century — at which time the terms were considerably risqué.

It’s widely believed that Tad Dorgan, the American sportswriter and cartoonist, first coined all these expressions (especially the cat ones), or at least brought them into popular usage. Dorgan created or popularized a whole “slang vernacular”, introducing into standard English a slew of now common words and phrases such as dumbbell (a stupid person), for crying out loud (an expression of astonishment), hard-boiled (referring to a tough person), and “yes, we have no bananas”, which became the title of a popular song.

I’m guessing that “the bee’s knees”, another such term still in use, endured simply because of its tidy size and tidy rhyme. According to Oxford Dictionaries, it was first recorded in the late 18th century, when it meant “something very small and insignificant”. However, its meaning changed in the 1920s — presumably to match its fellow “animal-body-part” expressions so fashionable at the time — to denote excellence. Some speculate that it derives from a comical mispronunciation of the word business, but there’s no evidence to support this idea. According to the Phrase Finder, another theory is that “bee’s knees” might have been connected to Bee Jackson, a 1920s dancer from New York who was said to have helped to popularize the Charleston by introducing the dance form to Broadway in 1924 (she went on to become a celebrated Charleston champion); “Bee’s knees” must have been fairly impressive. However, the phrase was in use before 1924, so this is also an unlikely scenario.

The British expression “dog’s bollocks”, which is thought to have originated as a printer’s term for the typographical colon dash “:-” (as Eric Partridge noted in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English in 1949), is now widely used in the UK to mean the same as the “cat’s whiskers”. (Here’s another example of animal body-parts, with bollocks being the British slang for testicles.) The OED cites an early example of the canine term being used in the sleeve notes for the cassette tape recording of Peter Brewis’s play The Gambler: “They are of the opinion that, when it comes to Italian opera, Pavarotti is the dog’s bollocks.”

Oxford & Cambridge: a new battleground for an old rivalry?

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Although Oxford took home yesterday’s trophy in the 159th Boat Race, today it seems that Cambridge has something to crow about: it’s being reported in the London Herald that Cambridge University has announced its introduction of the “Cambridge comma”. Rivaling the contentious Oxford comma, which – after the apostrophe – is probably the most divisive punctuation mark in the English language (see Glossophilia’s earlier post on the Oxford comma here), the Cambridge comma introduces a punctuated pause AFTER the word “and in lists — ie. before the final list item, with Oxford already having staked its claim to the prime position before the “and”.

An example of the new Cambridge comma illustrates the unexpectedly belated verbal interruption that it offers: “He packed up his books, cigars, teddy bears and, slippers.” Oxford’s remains more predictably timely: “He packed up his gowns, pipes, long-johns, and ties.”

Oxford and Cambridge have enjoyed an infamous but healthy rivalry for centuries, dating back to when they were the only two universities in England and Wales. Competition between the “Oxbridge” institutions is most famously characterized by the annual boat race, which takes place on a four-mile stretch of the River Thames. Now the colleges will have one more thing — in addition to the best cox and crew, the most famous alumni, the best academic ranking, the most renowned theatrical society — over which to compete: the relative value of their respective serial comma positions. Are you an Oxford comma kind of character, or a Cambridge comma cat?

A spokesman for Cambridge University was quoted in the London Herald remarking on this new role for the ever versatile comma: “Cambridge is proud to add a new, dynamic and, pause-worthy role to the most widely-used and abused punctuation mark in the English language. We look forward to seeing it flourish in literature, text messages and, IMs as we encourage the world to take an added pause.” Read the full London Herald article here.

Why is a ship a she?

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Why are ships called she?

“A ship is called a she because there is always a great deal of bustle around her; there is usually a gang of men about; she has a waist and stays; it takes a lot of paint to keep her good-looking; it is not the initial expense that breaks you, it is the upkeep; she can be all decked out; it takes an experienced man to handle her correctly; and without a man at the helm, she is absolutely uncontrollable. She shows her topsides, hiders her bottom and, when coming into port, always heads for the buoys.”

Based on this prose posted in the wardrooms of most U.S. naval ships and printed on many a tacky tea-towel (take it as mildly cheeky or inexcusably offensive), this is the explanation most people will offer up. (See also the even more chauvinistic rendering by Rear Admiral Francis D. Foley below.)

But seriously: why are ships and countries (and sometimes cars and other vessels and vehicles) often referred to with the feminine pronoun? Continue reading

Songs my childhood taught me 1: Rhymes from the schoolyard

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Glossophilia is taking a trip down memory lane with a series of posts on childhood songs and rhymes: when we skipped in the school playground, bounced on our parents’ knees, twisted our tongues around gob-stopping riffs, learned our lessons with nifty mnemonics, and recited —  delighted — silly nonsense.

Remember the days of the old schoolyard? If you’re a grown-up boy, you probably just remember the footie and the fisticuffs more than anything else. But we girls will never forget our hours and hours of hand-clapping and skipping-rope sessions,  the longer the better, with no-one ever tripping the rope or missing a beat, breathlessly counting, and chanting the rhymes and songs — often pretty rude — that gave it all reason, shape and momentum … Continue reading