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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
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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
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@Bradd: In the UK, "the dogs bollocks" (often, now, just "the bollocks") means "the best, the business". – FumbleFingers Mar 15 '14 at 23:37
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@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
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@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.


EDIT: Prompted by @JEL's comment below, I just found in the full OED this definition 1c...

berry slang (U.S.).
A dollar; also (in U.K.), a pound. Usu. in pl. Hence the berries: an excellent person or thing; ‘the cat's whiskers’.

But I note their first two citations are 1918 for the precise meaning a berry = a dollar and 1920 for the more figurative berries = something excellent. So I think my "folk etymology" stands scrutiny - particularly bearing in mind that my 1924 cite above specifically refers to the mistletoe berries.

Also note that OED has the usage bean = [a bit of] money from 1811, leading to this 1915 cite where three thousand beans = three thousand dollars. I think it's reasonable to suppose a degree of berry/bean conflation occurred within "high society" during the pre-war years. So regardless of any possible "first use" citations, the usage OP asks about probably owes at least some of whatever currency it ever had to association with other such semantically-related figurative usages.

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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
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@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
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Other than a blurry coincidence, do you have any reason to "more than suspect this use of the berries originated" etc.? OED Online suggests the origin of use signifying "something wonderful or very good" (OP) is from use signifying money: "c. slang (U.S.). A dollar; also (in U.K.), a pound. Usu. in pl. Hence the berries: an excellent person or thing". – JEL Mar 23 at 3:46
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@JEL: Further material added above. (I ain't going down without a fight! :) – FumbleFingers Mar 23 at 13:10

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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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

J.E. Lighter, Random House Dictionary of Historical Slang (1994) reports that the expression from which "the berries" arose was "all to the berries":

the berries, 1.a. that which is attractive or pleasing; the height of excellence. {A fashionable expression ca 1920–30.} [First cited occurrence:] 1908 McGaffney Show Girl 28: Say, that [girl]...is all to the berries, ain't she?

The McGaffney quote, in greater context, appears in Kenneth McGaffney, The Sorrows of a Show Girl: A Story of the Great "White Way" (1908):

"Say, that piece of work that stands on the end opposite you is all to the berries, ain't she?"

"Her?"

"Surest thing you know. She looks like a night-blooming pippin to me."

An example of "the berries" by itself meaning "the height of excellence" is this item from the Chicago Daily Tribune, reported in Library of Congress, Catalogue of Copyright Entries (1921):

Read why Paris picks Dempsey as the berries. © June 4, 1921 ; 1 c. June 6, 1921 ; A 591091.

Interestingly, Lighter also reports that by the early 1940s, "the berries" had also evolved (by way of ironic usage) very nearly the opposite meaning in some settings:

b. something very unpleasant or exasperating; the last straw. [First cited occurrence:] 1942 ATS 32: Something poor, mean, contemptible...the berries (ironically).

Further complicating the picture are two other meanings (also reported in Lighter) with usage examples from the 1920s:

2. exactly what a situation calls for; the truth. [First cited occurrence:] 1920 "B.L. Standish" Man on First 127: It don't take the shine off your little performance. You were there with the berries.

and:

3. RAZZBERRY.—occ. sing[ular]. [First cited occurrence:] 1926 Tully Jurnegan 249: Now, damn her, she can read in all the papers about the guy she slipped the berries to.

The expression didn't vanish at the end of the 1920s. Max Décharné, Straight from the Fridge, Dad: A Dictionary of Hipster Slang (2004) cites this example from Peter Cheyney, Your Deal, My Lovely (1941):

Sh had black hair an' black eyes an' a figure that looked like a serpent with nerve troubles. Except for the fact that she hadn't had her face lifted sh mighta been your favourite film star. That baby was the berries.

As to what the original idea of "berries" was in the phrase "all to the berries," one possibility is "money." Lighter gives "a dollar; pl. money" as one definition of berry, with a first cited occurrence from 1916.

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