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The Bee’s Knees

When researching for a bee-project, you are bound to come across all sorts of bee-related metaphors (the sting, the buzz, the workerbee etc.) and phrases. Most are easy to deal with, even when English is not your first language. But what is it with ‘the bee’s knees’?

Sometimes, you can get away with taking the phrase literally:

(Although, in this case, the joint in the picture would be described more adequately as the ‘bee’s heel’ – if you were willing to impose any term taken from vertebrate morphology on the somewhat different arrangement of insect extremities…)


But what do you make of these? Surely, they can’t be meant literally?

A Fulwood couple’s hobby is the bee’s knees (BBC)

…it is more about conclusive proof (…) that they are the bees knees of football right now… (The Guardian)

…Hall One at London’s new Kings Place arts venue (…) represents the bees-knees in acoustic design... (The Guardian)

…Inevitably, Heather Mills-McCartney has been photographed with her bees-knees divorce lawyer… (The Times – behind the paywall, sorry)


So, somehow, the bee’s knees got to indicate ‘excellence’ and ‘high quality’. But when, how or why seems to be unknown. The phrase has quite a history, though (thank you @BoraZ for the link!):

In the 18th century, ‘a bee’s knee’ was used “as a synonym for smallness, but has since disappeared from the language, replaced more recently by the less polite ‘gnat’s bollock’.”

It seems that ‘the bee’s knees’ then came up in the early 20th century in America when it had become fashionable to use nonsense terms to denote excellence – like ‘the snake’s hips’, ‘the kipper’s knickers’, ‘the cat’s pyjamas/whiskers’, or ‘the monkey’s eyebrows’. – Typical flapper talk, apparently.

Another connection might be to the dancer Bee Jackson, who by some is credited for bringing the Charleston to Broadway. However, although she certainly had very active and attractive knees, her appearance in 1924 somewhat post-dates the use of the phrase.

I am delighted, though, to see where these bees (and their knees) can take you!