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According to From Flappers to Rappers: A Study of American Youth Slang by Dr. Thomas Dalzell, "the berries" was a 1920s widely used slang term among American youth to describe something wonderful or very good. I shouldn't be surprised if etymology reveals "the berries" to be much older than the 1920s; however, what I'm most curious to know is why anyone would describe something wonderful or very good as "the berries". Any thoughts?

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On one hand, I wouldn't be surprised that it's alluding to testicles. On the other hand, slang usually uses testicles to mean nonsense or displeasure, not praise. – Bradd Szonye Mar 15 '14 at 22:34
For the same exact reason that something exciting or wonderful was the bee's knees or something cool was the cat's pajamas. Slang is often catchy without specific corellation to reality. – medica Mar 15 '14 at 23:07
@Bradd: In the UK, "the dogs bollocks" (often, now, just "the bollocks") means "the best, the business". – FumbleFingers Mar 15 '14 at 23:37
@Jim: It was my downvote because I'm far from impressed with the book OP keeps citing from. Which admittedly looks a bit odd considering I answered the "pine-feathers" question as well as this one. All I can say is the fact that I felt like answering doesn't mean I think these are particularly useful questions. – FumbleFingers Mar 16 '14 at 1:29
@Jim Thank you, Jim. I haven't the least notion why Susan and FumbleFingers should get sore over which book I use to cite a source from. Just because they don't consider the question useful doesn't mean others won't. No one is telling them they have to like my questions or my sources. If they don't, they needn't acknowledge them! – User53019 Mar 17 '14 at 0:32
up vote 7 down vote accepted

I don't know that Dr. Thomas Dalzell and I would have the same definition of "widely used slang", but I more than suspect this use of the berries originated in an 1869 Punch cartoon...

Greengrocer (to our little friend in velvet asking for a piece of Mistletoe for his own private diversion)
"It ain't a very big Piece, but there's lots o' Berries on it; An' it's the Berries as does it!"
[i.e. - it's the berries that will ensure you get your kiss under the mistletoe.]

I see The New York Times reproduced that cartoon in 1911 (search for "berries" on that page, and it's in the OCR text). The (comparatively few) written instances I've been able to find suggest the term was mainly associated with wealthy young people (whose parents probably read NYT). In Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 1924, the use of "scare quotes" suggests to me that particular doctor expected at least some of his upper-middle-class readership to appreciate the reference (i.e. - it may have been something of "catch-phrase" for a certain class of people).

It seems to me if there's any meaning at all to the search for an "origin" of such a short-lived and geographically/socially constrained usage, it's more likely to have arrived via the Punch -> NYT route than from a more "earthy" allusion to testicles.

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I've never heard it, but I don't think it was short-lived: newspapers thought it was "funny" enough to use "It's the berries!" as a headline for any berry-related story at least between the 1940s and 2000s. – Hugo Mar 19 '14 at 11:10
@Hugo: It's all relative, obviously. But no-one here yet seems to be claiming familiarity with the usage, so I think it's fair to say it's already "moribund". By contrast, although many people would probably say the bees knees and the cat's pyjamas are "dated", at least they do actually know those terms. – FumbleFingers Mar 19 '14 at 12:55

I can claim a first person familiarity with the usage. My paternal grandmother, born Dundee 1895, emigrated to US via Canada, 1911, used to use it all the time as a part of her normal speech. I asked her why once and she gave the berries explanation, whether mistletoe or others, not the testicles one. Whether she picked it up as a child in Scotland or after arriving here, I cannot say.

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Hello 114. Interesting, but probably better given as a 'comment' (unless your grandmother had a degree in linguistics). – Edwin Ashworth Mar 19 '15 at 23:00

During summer holidays , teenagers would be employed to pick strawberries and raspberries in Perthshire . They would arrive in buses from outlying areas. It gave opportunities to mix, and generally have fun . Memories would be of long summer days , and often their first pay packets . With this in mind , something good would be referred to as the berries .

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