The bee's knees

>> Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The bee's knees. What does that mean??
- Robbin VanNewkirk, "The Bee's Knees",
Run, Robbin Bird, May 15th, 2012

She was being rhetorical, of course. Sister wasn't really asking so much as she was just clearing her throat before talking about running, chocolate and beer and posting a pic of her adorable cat, Gus. But this is the kind of question that can get under the skin like a splinter, one of those splinters you can wriggle the end off of but can't pull out from under the skin and now you can see it and you can feel it--it feels huge, not fractions of a fraction of an inch--but it's hard to get even with tweezers and maybe you hope it's just absorbed into the body.

What the hell are bee's knees?

Whether bees have knees at all is a matter of interpretation. No, seriously. They have legs (six of them, they're insects, duh), and their legs are jointed. But someone at Yahoo points out they don't have patellas, i.e. kneecaps. But then some actual physicians and researchers out of Cambridge (the English one) who do a BBC program called The Naked Scientists point out that all the several joints on a bee's polysegmented legs ought to be considered knees, notwithstanding the lack of kneecaps, so bees have oodles of knees (my phrasing, not theirs, alas), knees coming out the abdomens. (Not really: they're all attached to the middle part of the bee, the thorax, actually. But the abdomen is where things that go into a bee come out of a bee, naturally, d'ya see?)

Oh dear. We don't even know what a knee is. Yes we do: Wikipedia says it's the joint without reference to the patella, score one for Cambridge University. Only... only dictionaries reference that damn patella as being part of the knee, protecting the joint. Point to anonymous Internet people? Dear, oh dear.

Bees may or may not have knees. Possibly. It depends on what a "knee" is. We have now gone from idiom to science to Monicagate in three paragraphs. I win.

(It seems to me, anyway, that someone ought to settle the issue before we teach bees to play soccer. It's be pointless to even try if we decide in advance we can't offer them regulation equipment.)

But, okay, why "bee's knees"? I think we've heard this one, right? "It's the bee's knees", meaning awesome, meaning something is even better than Jake. And that's an apt reference that I'm sticking in on purpose, which we'll get to in a second.

First, though, I'm gonna confess I'm not doing any original research here. Wish I had the time, energy and resources. I have to whine a bit right now and say that lately I've really been missing those college days when you took your question down to the stacks and spent hours down there at the library, orienting yourself with the secondaries before girding your loins and wading into the primaries whacking away with your vorpal pen and aegis notepad raised high. Good times. I don't know if I even remember how to do it anymore, it's been so long, though I'd like to think it's like riding a bicycle, in the sense you quickly recover the whole muscle memory thing and can do it instinctively no matter how long its been, and not in the sense that your legs hurt in all sorts of places you didn't know existed (and some places, like your indisputable knees, you're all-too acquainted with) and then you fall over (and now you have bloody and aching knees, complete with possibly-fractured patellas, Yahoo and Cambridge will readily agree).

But what do we find when we go searching online for "the bee's knees" and the origin of that odd, odd phrase? The best answer shows up at our old friend, Wikipedia:

Slang for something outstanding or new; a fresh new style. Possibly derived from the Irish Gaelic béas núíosach, pronounced bæs núísəh, meaning fresh new style or a novel manner.

The best answer also being almost certainly near-total bullshit, actually. I mean, it would be really, really awesome if "bee's knees" really was a corruption of an ancient Gaelic expression, but the source of that claim appears to be what is credibly regarded as a specious, poorly-argued and badly-researched book claiming broad swaths of Anglo-American slang are all Irish in origin. Even if there weren't strong critics of Wikipedia's source, there's also the fact that Wikipedia's claim of Irish derivation is itself an outlier: there are plenty of dictionaries of English, dictionaries of slang, discussions of slang generally, discussions of "bee's knees" particularly, and the only ones I see referencing the Gaelic origin all appear to be quoting Wikipedia. Verbatim. The overwhelming majority of etymologies and discussions of "bee's knees" point elsewhere.

Specifically and plausibly (they're Jake!), to the 1920s. vaguely alludes to "especially in the 1920s" (and adds as a temporally-appropriate example of usage, "Her new roadster is simply the bee's knees"). Wiktionary more helpfully says, "One of many such informal phrases coined in the early 20th century for no apparent reason, of which only a few have endured," and that really seems to be the heart of it. As Mark Israel points out, "the bee's knees" goes along with other absurd animal phrases of the Roaring '20s we all know with similar meanings, like "the cat's pajamas", and some we've all forgotten, like "the eel's ankle" (though that one really seems like it ought to be do for a comeback, doesn't it?).

Unlike some of the related expressions Israel mentions, "bee's knees" obviously rolls off the tongue; there's a nice assonance, as there is with "cat's pajamas" and unlike (sorry to say) "eel's ankle". There's a little assonance in "elephant's instep" but I think the meter's off and it's easy to see--no, wait, it's easy to hear why that one didn't catch on when you say it aloud along with the others in the family. "Bee's knees" is just there.

The '20s may be when the phrase caught on, but The Phrase Finder tracks it back before that, with usage as a nonsense-phrase in the decades preceding its use as an abstract superlative and (a presumably separate and distinct) usage back to the 18th Century as a diminutive (replaced, The Phrase Finder claims, by "gnat's bollock", another expression that needs to make a comeback). The Phrase Finder article at least appears to be well-sourced, though here's where we reach back to my earlier disclaimer: I'm not going to go back and check their primaries and I don't really have the resources to go digging for anything they might have missed, alas.

Anyway, the Phrase Finder piece is what I'd go with if I were you. Also, I can't resist pointing out they decorate it with a photograph of an attractive young woman in a low-cut number that shows a lot of leg, which may be an incentive for some readers. (I confess it didn't hurt my opinion of the post any.)

So, what does "the bee's knees" mean? Nothing, turns out. Turns out it was just flappers trying to irritate their parents by using an anatomically dubious bit of entomological etymology instead of just saying something's "nice".

I guess that sort of clears that up.


John Healy Wednesday, May 16, 2012 at 12:42:00 PM EDT  

I figured it meant fine. Very fine.

Phiala Wednesday, May 16, 2012 at 12:50:00 PM EDT  

Library. You're so old-fashioned.

A quick spin through Google Books confirms that the phrase became fashionable in the 1920s. There are no definite occurrences before 1920, and then suddenly it's everywhere, including this gem:

The postal record: Volumes 33-34 - Page 266
National Association of Letter Carriers (U.S.) - 1920
As Uncle Remus says, "Dat sure am de honey of the bee's knees." The taste of this honey was not quite as sweet as we expected, due to the fact that two stingers were inserted in it.

There's one supposed occurrence in 1916, but not even a snippet view for that book to confirm.

And then there's my favorite Google tool, the ngram viewer for that phrase, tracking its frequency of occurrence in the Google text corpus by time.

Eric Wednesday, May 16, 2012 at 1:04:00 PM EDT  

Thank you Phiala, especially for the Ngram link, which tends to back up the Phrase Finder's treatment: a few references in the first decades of the 20th Century and then a massive spike in the 1920s, declining usage thereafter for awhile and then increasing usage in recent years.

Phiala Wednesday, May 16, 2012 at 1:07:00 PM EDT  

The ngram thingie is great fun: you can put in several phrases and compare them.

Eric Wednesday, May 16, 2012 at 1:13:00 PM EDT  

I am crushed, utterly devastated that "eel's ankle" has been so neglected in our mother tongue. As has "gnat's bollock", it happens. ("Elephant's instep" is equally unpopular, but that one won't keep me up at night.)

Robbin Wednesday, May 16, 2012 at 2:30:00 PM EDT  

Nicely done. I'm going to start asking more rhetorical questions in my blog posts!

Konstantin Burlak Thursday, May 17, 2012 at 12:09:00 PM EDT  

I would use gnat's bollock. But would add right bollock. Gnat's right bollock.

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