I get it. I get it! “The bee’s knees!” As I was taking close-up photographs with my camera phone on a morning river walk in Coshocton, Ohio, I was mesmerized by the fluffy yellow leg warmers a particular honeybee had accumulated on his many treks over the aster flowers. I was so full of love for the little guy and the industry it took him to fill up his little legs.
No wonder it’s such a compliment, I thought to myself. The “bee’s knees” are the source of our food supply. They represent a singular commitment to hard work and loyalty, and if you’ve ever seen a honeybee dance of communication, you know the “bee’s knees” are the beginning of a new home and life, of survival itself.
I came skipping back to look up the etymology of “bee’s knees,” impressed with the idea that some poet or essayist had once upon a time fallen in love with this very notion and coined the phrase that would last for generations. I was disappointed my latest edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (hello!? Familiar!??) did not have the phrase, so I had to turn to the internet, once again.
Imagine my surprise when the earliest reference to “bee’s knee,” in 1797, was for “something insignificant.”
In fact, not only was it a negative, but it was a bit gross, because according to a UK site (and hey, it’s their phrase, so they would know) the original term, negatively implying smallness, was then replaced by the term “gnat’s bollock.” Now I don’t know if you realize this, but the word “bollocks” means “testicles.” This is not the poetic discourse I was hoping to find. I don’t want my beautiful bee’s knees anywhere near gnat testicles.
Marla’s Sheldon-wanna-be Industrial Revolution Hypothesis:
It wasn’t until 20th century America that “bee’s knees” appears again, first nonsensically, then as a slang for “excellent.” The sites I came across didn’t seem to offer much hypotheses on the “bee’s knee” going from a negative term to a positive one, but for me the change makes perfect sense. So I will lay out my (yet) historically undocumented scenario here…
America, the consummate “underdog” (in her own mind), is always quick to spin a negative into a positive (and vice versa). I can imagine a scenario where that small and “insignificant” bee’s knee begins to symbolize greatness.
I can imagine something as simple as a vestigial insult: average Americans, insignificant and small, a country of “bee’s knees”. Perhaps it would go with a side of buzzing, a swarm of seemingly random activity, dying with our first sting but continuing to be a nuisance nonetheless. The insult, of course, is lingering aristocracy: the large, the noble, the royal swatting away the insolent and insistent pest.
And imagining that makes it easy to also see a 20th century rallying cry. In our new age of industrialization (and likewise Britain’s industrialization) the “insignificant” workers took on new meaning. Indeed, “busy as a bee” was once negative as well, if you take Chaucer for the patronizing misogynist (although I LOVE me some Chaucer) that he was. An early written reference found for “busy as a bee” was in “The Squire’s Tale” in Canterbury Tales, where he references “In wommen be; for ay as busy as bees Be thay us seely men for to desceyve…” The ever-deceitful females were “busy as bees” in trying to get one over on the males.
So what about that industrial revolution? The worker became the symbol of hope, of potential to work hard and maybe even rise above a station he was born to, and thus small became large. “Insignificant” became “excellent.” The “bee’s knees” revolutionized itself to something greater than bucolic smallness. (Yes, smarmy voice just leaked in again).
Sadly, like any metaphor (and remember, I’m still hypothesizing here) “bee’s knees” suffered from overuse, and, because it was adopted so adamantly by the class it was meant to embrace (the less educated working class) it suffered a slow and hokey decline into dead metaphor. The cliche became a tongue-in-cheek means for the overeducated and idle-handed (not quite busy enough to have nothing better to do than make fun of the working class) to rip on the uncluttered minds of plainspoken, hard-working people.
But I think the most interesting place it was used was part of the reason it was also denigrated. As much as we like to think things have changed between the male-female relationship, a look at Flappers in the 1920s echoes the way Chaucer viewed women in the 1400s:
“The nonsense expression ‘the bee’s knees’ was taken up by the socialites of Roaring 20s America and added to the list of ‘excellent’ phrases. A printed reference in that context appears in the Ohio newspaper The Newark Advocate, April 1922, in a piece on newly coined phrases entitles ‘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]”
Am I the only one who sees the easy symbolization of the bee as negative when associated with women and bucolic “ignorance” but positive when associated with the change to industry and blue collar workers, only to be subverted again by the male-dominated academic class again in the 1900s, until the poetic compliment became a joke?
I think some historian out there is being a lazy chap by not digging into the books to prove these connections better. There has to be enough evidence, even if it’s like the conclusion by elimination and adjacent evidence as often done in genealogy, to draw a convincing argument.
Please. Some research scholar, run with that. I bet it would even make a good doctoral dissertation once de-Marla-fied of all the cluttered rambling and cleaned up for academic study. 😉
I hope you’ve enjoyed the pictures of these gorgeous bees and their knees, as well as others from my walk along the beautiful section maintained by Coshocton’s Rotary Club.
I already know there will be many, many blogs about the Coshocton River Walk and Lake Park, because it’s an endless source of changing beauty and interesting people, and because I can’t stop making connections to a past, present, and hypothetical life.
And if I happen to tell you “You’re the bee’s knees” in my post-Flapper-esque penchant for expressing my love and admiration, remember, I’m really not implying you’re a gnat testicle. Bazinga!