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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Monday, January 23, 2012

The cat's p*jamas

Papagena (without pyjamas, -- or legs, apparently)
A Canadian twitter follower of mine recently asked which is the correct spelling: pyjamas or pajamas. Traditionally Canadians have followed the British in using "pyjamas" whereas Americans use "pajamas". She felt (and lamented) that Canadians were "sliding" into American usage on this. When we edited the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, "pyjamas" was definitely more common, but this comment suggested it was time to look into it again, so I conducted a facebook poll. So far, 37 Canadians have answered "pyjamas" versus only 6 saying "pajamas", so I don't think much sliding is going on. If you're Canadian and haven't participated in my facebook poll, let me know what spelling you use in the comments (or send me an email).

This is one of the many words that the English borrowed during their time in India. It comes from the Urdu pāy-jāma, pā-jāma, (in turn coming from Persian pāy , foot, leg + jāma clothing, garment) and originally designated the loose floaty trousers worn in the Indian subcontinent. The English adopted these as sleepwear in the 19th century, and combined them with a light jacket. As you can see, there is no -s ending in the original language: it was added in English by analogy with "trousers", "pants", etc. 

Intriguingly, until the early 20th century, this word was apparently pronounced "pie jamma" 

As for the phrase "the cat's pyjamas", we do not know what wit thought it up, but it cropped up, along with its variants "cat's whiskers" and "cat's meow", or -- my father's favourite -- "cat's ass" in the 1920s,







6 comments:

  1. Definitely "pyjamas"!

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  2. Pyjamas for me but it got underlined so must be an American check.

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  3. I'd always thought those were euphemisms standing in for other parts of the cat.

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  4. Useful for me at this moment! I'm just editing a Canadian memoir and, although I know "pajamas" is American, I was wondering this very thing.

    ReplyDelete

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.