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What Does It Mean to Be the "Cat's Whiskers"?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 23, 2024
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Being the cat’s whiskers is an entertaining and positive way of noting that something is considered to be very near perfect, the life of the party, or in some other way a standout in a rather mundane setting. The humorous references and images that this particular idiom brings to mind has to do with the versatility of the whiskers of the average cat, including the ability to communicate emotions, relate to the immediate environment, aid in hunting, and provide perspective in terms of measuring distance.

The exact origin of the English saying cat’s whiskers is debated. Some believe that the term, along with the similar cat’s meow, have their origin in the girls' boarding schools of the 19th century. Others believe that the term was first brought to life by the Thomas Dorgan, a cartoonist who was active during the early years of the 20th century. What is generally agreed is that by the 1920s, both cat’s whiskers and cat’s meow were firmly established in the national lexicon in the United States, and commonly employed as a term of endearment and attraction among young lovers of college age.

Unlike other idiomatic expressions that may sometimes carry positive or negative connotations depending on the context and setting, cat’s whiskers tends to be universally employed in a positive manner. An individual who is romantically attracted to another person may use the term as a way of describing just how deep the attraction goes. An employer may utilize the term to refer to an employee who produces exemplary work, sometimes above and beyond that which is required. Proud parents may bestow this designation on children in regard to something they have done well, such as performing well in a school play or winning some type of competition. In each application, "cat’s whiskers" indicates the recognition of and warm feelings for another person.

While not used as commonly as in decades past, references to someone being the cat’s whiskers is still generally understood to be a good thing. Younger people may sometimes have to receive some sort of explanation of what the idiom means, which can lead to seeing the use of the phrase in an amusing manner. Even among those who consider the phrase to be outdated and not worthy of use in public may still utilize the term to convey emotions of love, pride, and respect in private settings.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Language & Humanities, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By literally45 — On Aug 05, 2013

This is a weird idiom. I'm sure it must have been very popular in 1920s, but it doesn't make much sense today.

I actually get "cat's pajamas" because pajamas in the 1920s was a very new and out of the ordinary thing. But what's so new and great about cat's whiskers? They've always had them!

If someone can enlighten me about the origin and popularity of this idiom, that would be great.

By bluedolphin — On Aug 04, 2013

@anamur-- "Cat's whiskers" can be used for both people and things and basically it means special, excellent, great and delightful. You can definitely say "he's the cat's whiskers." You could also use the idiom in a phrase like "this party is the cat's whiskers."

We don't use this idiom very much in the US anymore but I've heard it used several times when I was in the UK last year. Cat's whiskers is interchangeable with "cat's meow" and "cat's pajamas." I think "the bee's knees" also means the same thing.

By serenesurface — On Aug 04, 2013

I'm still confused about how to use this idiom. Do I say "he is the cat's whiskers?" Can someone give me an example with this idiom so that I can get a better idea?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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