I love books, and I love words, so I was excited to find an website that specializes in breaking down the origins of common catch phrases. Today’s phrase: The Bee’s Knees.
‘Bee’s knees’ began to be used in early 20th century America. Initially, it was just a nonsense expression that denoted something that didn’t have any meaningful existence…..That meaning is apparent in a spoof report in the New Zealand newspaper The West Coast Times in August 1906, which listed the cargo carried by the SS Zealandia as ‘a quantity of post holes, 3 bags of treacle and 7 cases of bees’ knees’…… Zane Grey’s 1909 story, The Shortstop, has a city slicker teasing a yokel by questioning him about make-believe farm products:
“How’s yer ham trees? Wal, dog-gone me! Why, over in Indianer our ham trees is sproutin’ powerful. An’ how about the bee’s knees? Got any bee’s knees this Spring?”
Pretty much everything I’ve read, though, agrees that the likely popularization of the phrase really occurred in the 1920’s, the period of the flappers. “Bee’s knees” is part of a fashion for nonsense rhyming slang from the Roaring 20s. The common feature of the slang expressions was mention of an animal part with some alliteration thrown in. Some of my favorites: “elephant’s adenoids”, “caterpillar’s kimono”, “gnat’s elbows”, “kipper’s knickers”, and “eel’s ankle”. You have probably heard another phrase that’s survived from that period: “The Cat’s Pajamas.”
All of these phrases generally translate to what, today, would be said as “Awesome!” (Although I suspect there is a newer word for that, but I’m just too old and un-hip to know about it.)
The phrase occurs in print in several places in the US in 1922; Newspapers published “Flapper Dictionaries” to explain the strange and baffling lingo of those damn kids. There is a reference to the term in a Flapper Dictionary from Missouri in 1922; The Newark Advocate, (Ohio) in a 1922 piece printed:
“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.”
Alas, while the concept of the phrase referring to the collection of pollen on actual bees’ knees is appealing, it appears not to be the case.
If you want to have a fun 20’s flashback, here’s some Harold Lloyd driving around NYC.