What's in a Word | All Blogs


The hep cat behind the cat’s meow

By Debra Dobbins

The Roaring Twenties, coming between World War I and the Great Depression, were full of ebullience and confidence. Americans lived it up, blissfully unaware of the dire times that lay ahead.

The light-heartedness of the decade produced a torrent of slang. For instance, Sol Steinmetz, author of There’s a Word for It, writes that the Twenties gave us words such as “wow,” “gaga” and “nah.” Instead of saying “the best,” flappers (flamboyant young women) and their dates said “the bee’s knees,” “the cat’s meow” or "the cat’s pajamas.”

Sometimes pinning down the exact origin of a slang expression is difficult. Long before communication went viral, the process of starting and spreading slang was still informal. People picked up words and phrases from others and made them their own, just at a slower pace than now and often without formal documentation. Historians do know, however, whom to credit for “cat’s meow” and "cat's pajamas."

The hep cat (someone keeping up on the latest trends) was cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, who worked first for San Francisco newspapers and then for the New York Journal. Since he signed his drawings as TAD, he became known as Tad Dorgan.

photo of Tad Dorgan courtesy of Wikipedia
(originally from Project Gutenberg archives)

According to Wikipedia, “Dorgan is generally credited with either creating or popularizing such words and expressions as "dumbbell" (a stupid person); "for crying out loud" (an exclamation of astonishment); "cat's meow" and "cat's pajamas" (as superlatives); "applesauce" (nonsense); "cheaters'" (eyeglasses); "skimmer" (a hat); "hard-boiled" (a tough person); "drugstore cowboy" (loafers or ladies' men); "nickel-nurser" (a miser); "as busy as a one-armed paperhanger" (overworked); and "Yes, we have no bananas," which was turned into a popular song.”

Dorgan’s successful career as a cartoonist demonstrates how one can turn adversity into opportunity. “When he was 13 years old, he lost the last three fingers of his right hand in an accident with a factory machine,” according to Wikipedia. “He took up drawing for therapy. A year later at the age of 14 he joined the art staff of the San Francisco Bulletin.”

An inspirational story like that is truly "the cat’s meow.” So is the news that the lynx are again thriving in Colorado. For more details on that, see the editorial below.

 



 

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