The Bee's Knees

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The Bee's Knees : Phrases


Excellent - the highest quality.


Hard to tell if we need an etymologist or an entomologist for this one.

Bees carry pollen back to the hive in sacks on their legs. It is tempting to explain this phrase as alluding to the concentrated goodness to be found around the bee's knee. There's no evidence for this explanation though. It is sometimes said to be a corruption of 'business', but there's no evidence to support that either.

Nor is there any connection with another phrase, 'a bee's knee'. In the 18th century this was used as a synonym for smallness, but has since disappeared from the language:

Mrs. Townley Ward - Letters, June 1797 in N. & Q. "It cannot be as big as a bee's knee."

There's no definitive origin for 'the bee's knees', but it appears to have been coined in 1920s America. The first printed reference to it I can find is in the Ohio newspaper The Newark Advocate, April 1922, under the heading 'What Does It Mean?':

"That's what you wonder when you hear a flapper chatter in typical flapper language. 'Apple Knocker,' for instance. And 'Bees Knees.' That's flapper talk. This lingo will be explained in the woman's page under the head of Flapper Dictionary." [an 'apple knocker' is a rustic]

Clearly the phrase must have been new then for the paper to plan to take the trouble to define it. Disappointingly, they didn't follow up on their promise and 'the lingo' wasn't subsequently explained. Several U.S. newspapers did feature lists of phrases under 'Flapper Dictionary' headings. Although 'bee's knees' isn't featured, they do show the time as being a period of quirky linguistic coinage. For example, from one such Flapper Dictionary:

Kluck - dumb person.
Dumb kluck - worse than a kluck.
Pollywoppus - meaningless stuff.
Fly-paper - a guy who sticks around.

There's no profound reason to relate bees and knees other than the jaunty-sounding rhyme. In the 1920s it was fashionable to devise nonsense terms for excellence - 'the snake's hips', 'the kipper's knickers", 'the cat's pyjamas', 'the sardine's whiskers' etc. Of these, the bee's knees and the cat's pyjamas are the only ones that have stood the test of time. More recently, we see the same thing - the dog's bollocks.

(Note: knickers weren't underwear then - even for kippers. At least, one would hope not - the edition of the Newark Advocate above also had the headline 'Bride Wears Knickers To Wedding'.)

One possible connection between the phrase and an actual bee relates to Bee Jackson. Ms. Jackson was a dancer in 1920s New York and is credited with introducing the dance to Broadway in February, 1924, when she appeared at the Silver Slipper nightclub. She went on to become the World Champion Charleston dancer and was quite celebrated at the time.

It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that the expression was coined in reference to her (and her very active knees).

Whatever the derivation, the 1920s date look's right - so long as we ignore this bizarre cartoon. It is from the May 5th 1914 edition of the Fort Wayne Sentinel. Make of it what you will.

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