Americans have always preferred things top-drawer (c.1900). It was, after all, where they kept their most precious objects. When it comes to describing things first rate, however, they’re at anything but their consummate best.
For awhile, they enjoyed being A1 (c.1830s), thanks to Lloyd’s of London’s Shipping Register which ranked the condition of ships by letter — A1 being the highest attainable rating.
A century later, excellence took a novel turn with the introduction of new nighttime attire. Considered both the height of fashion and somewhat risqué, it took on very special meaning during the twenties as the cat’s pajamas.
Soon all things feline came to embody excellence — everything from the cat’s meow to his whiskers, tonsils, roller skates, and galoshes. Other animals then followed suit, joined to incongruous body parts or articles of clothing, resulting in the bee’s knees, the gnu’s shoes, and the elephant’s instep, and — of course for that day when pigs will fly — the pig’s wings.
Things of the first water, however, remained “unblemished,” diamonds having been rated first, second, or third water since 1820. But only if you were the eel’s ankles or the sardine’s whiskers.