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Friday, September 14, 2007


Etymology is funnier than the name makes it sound

If you don't believe me, check out this article. Or at least, this page, which lists a wonderful assortment of flapper-slang synonyms for the 'bee's knees':

'cat's miaow', 'elephant's adenoids', 'tiger's spots', 'bullfrog's beard', 'elephant's instep', 'caterpillar's kimono', 'turtle's neck', 'duck's quack', 'gnat's elbows', 'monkey's eyebrows', 'oyster's earrings', 'snake's hips', 'kipper's knickers', 'elephant's manicure', 'clam's garter', 'eel's ankle', 'leopard's stripes', 'tadpole's teddies', 'sardine's whiskers', 'pig's wings', 'canary's tusks', 'cuckoo's chin' and 'butterfly's book'.

I think 'kipper's knickers' is long-overdue for a revival, but my nostalgic heart still belongs to 'cat's pyjamas', which is what we used to say when I were a young'un. It was fixed in my attention by Roald Dahl's immortal couplet in Revolting Rhymes, where, as he retells the tale of Snow White, the magic mirror tells the wicked Queen:

You are the only one to charm us,

Queen, you are the cat's pyjamas.

I feel a return to childhood coming on. Knickers! Kniiiiiickers!!!

You must have really been enamored of "bullfrog's beard"--you listed it twice. ;)

I remember reading a similar list in a book I grew up with called I Hear America Talking, which was all about the origins of slang through American history. Most interesting was the fact that so many slang terms for "drunk" were coined in the 1920s--during Prohibition!
Oops. Corrected! Well spotted... :-)

Do you remember any of those slang words?
"banana oil." As in:

Person A: *puts forth succession of untrue statements"
Person B:"That's a load of banana oil."

I never heard anybody say it, I just like it so much. Somebody wrote in to an advice columnist when I was a kid in an effort to bring it back into usage. I don't think it worked.

"N'doi!" meaning "well obviously, duh" seems to have gone the way of the dodo as well.

And I always thought actual bee's knees must be cute.
Ah, I've heard 'banana oil'; Gene Kelly says it in Singin in the Rain. Possibly it's a slightly politer way of saying 'snake oil'?

Apparently, in (I think) Victorian Britain, people would say 'quoz!' a lot. Which didn't mean anything very much, but they liked to say it; it was not unlike 'boyakasha', I think - a popular nonsense word.
The list of words for drunk was very, very long. I remember ones like "juiced" and "jiggered" that I don't see used today, and ones like "smashed" and "plowed" that I sometimes do. And lots of variations on "lit" as in "lit up like a Christmas tree", "lit up like Times Square" and "lit up like a house on fire."

I suspect the reason so many slang words for drunk showed up in the 20s is the same reason so many little odd ways of saying "would you like to smoke some marijuana" have evolved--as a way those In The Know can communicate around those Out Of The Know without them getting it.
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