Bees are referenced many times in proverbs and poetry, and they crop up in all kinds of general phrases and slang expressions. So the ‘bee’s knees’ is a well-known phrase, but what is the origin?
Nowadays we consider the term to mean ‘the best’, but it
appears that it may not always have had this meaning.
The Oxford English Dictionary states that as far back as
1797, the expression ‘bee’s knee’ was used in Britain to mean something small
or insignificant, but there is no evidence that this is the source of the later
term ‘bee’s knees’.
Some say that it originated from “B’s and E’s” – meaning “the be-all and end-all” which, it is said is an allusion to Shakespeare’s use of the expression in Macbeth from 1605. In the famous play, Macbeth speaks these lines whilst contemplating assassinating King Duncan of Scotland so that he, Macbeth can then claim the throne. The words are:
If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly. If th' assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease, success: that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all.
But I wonder whether this could really be related to ‘bee’s
knees’? Today we generally use the expression ‘be all and end all’ to suggest that something is not the only thing
that matters, or even more casually it is used to hint that ‘the sky is not about
to fall in’.
However, it’s possible to
imagine that later, a love-struck some-one might refer to the apple of their
eye as being ‘the be all and end all’ as far as they were concerned. Could this have humorously been twisted into ‘bee
all and end all’ and then later, ‘the
There is no evidence for this either, and it’s too much of a
stretch for me.
Another proposal is that it is from an accent or dialect
corruption of the word ‘business’ (‘the beezness’ or ‘bees-in-ness’). These phrases
were and are used in Cockney rhyming slang and in the US. (As an aside, another bee-related Cockney
rhyming slang phrase is ‘bee and honey’ – meaning ‘money’). What is not clear is how this relates to ‘knees’
and why it should?
However, real evidence for its early use as an expression dates
back to a spoof report from August 1906, in the West Coast Times in New Zealand. The paper reported that within the cargo
carried by the SS Zealandia there were 7 cases of ‘bees knees’, along with a ‘quantity
of post holes’.
There are other examples of the term being used in this
way, i.e. as a means of deliberately misleading and befuddling someone with the
reference to something that does not exist, such as asking a person to fetch striped
paint or a sky hook (however, as stated, bees do have knees!).
Even so, why the use
of the expression in a particular context should have evolved to have an
entirely different meaning, is not clear.
The ‘bee’s knees’ became popular in the USA in the 1920s,
and some suggest that the expression is an allusion to the World Champion
Charleston dancer Bee Jackson – hence ‘Bee’s knees’!
On the other hand, perhaps given the dancer's name, it's just as likely that it seemed fitting to apply an already existing phrase 'Bee's Knees' to the dancer, following her success?
After all, the 1920s was a period of time when ‘bee’s knees’ took
on the meaning of ‘the very best’, along with a range of similar ‘rhyming’
expressions in the USA such as: cat’s pyjamas; ant’s pants; caterpillar’s
kimono; elephant’s instep; bullfrog’s beard.
These expressions did seem to catch on, and some (bee’s
knees and cat’s pyjamas in particular) are still used today.
For me, it seems very plausible that it was one of many
expressions that became popular that referenced the animal kingdom
at that time.
That said, there is no real conclusive evidence that any of these are the definitive origins – so take your pick: an allusion to Shakespeare; a dialectic corruption of ‘business’; an allusion to a dancer’s anatomy; a nonsense term or rhyming slang expression!
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