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Bee’s knees

Q From Snev Stevens and T Senthilnathan: The bee’s knees informally means the best, the most desirable. How did the saying originate?

A It’s sometimes explained as being from an Italian-American way of saying business or that it’s properly Bs and Es, an abbreviation for be-alls and end-alls. Both are without doubt wrong. Bee’s knees is actually one of a set of nonsense catchphrases from 1920s America, the period of the flappers, speakeasies, feather boas and the Charleston.

Various writers have accumulated long lists of phrases of this type that you might have heard in that decade: elephant’s adenoids, cat’s miaow, ant’s pants, tiger’s spots, bullfrog’s beard, elephant’s instep, caterpillar’s kimono, turtle’s neck, duck’s quack, duck’s nuts, monkey’s eyebrows, gnat’s elbows, oyster’s earrings, snake’s hips, kipper’s knickers, elephant’s manicure, clam’s garter, eel’s ankle, leopard’s stripes, tadpole’s teddies, sardine’s whiskers, canary’s tusks, pig’s wings, cuckoo’s chin, and butterfly’s book. Plus many others.

None of these made much sense — but then slang fashions often don’t — and their only common feature was the comparison of something of excellent quality to some inappropriate or non-existent part of an animal with, if possible, a bit of alliteration or rhyme thrown in.

Another example was cat’s whiskers, which is sometimes said to have been the first of the bunch to arise, from the cat’s whisker that was the adjustable wire in crystal sets used to receive early radio broadcasts. Some researchers argue that it was the model for all the others. This is my first sighting:

That’s the pussy cat’s whiskers, all right!

Chicago Daily Tribune, 28 May 1922.

However, other forms appeared in print earlier:

A good letter, Quig, one like that every month would be the “cat’s meow”.

Pirate Piece, Apr. 1921.

Fred tells the sheriff the Stepney fire carnival in August will be the bees knees.

Bridgeport Telegram, 21 Jul. 1921.

There’s a hint that bee’s knees was around earlier, to judge from this:

A comic strip, Osgar Und Adolf
A strip from Osgar Und Adolf, by Fred Schaefer and A D Condo, which appeared in The Des Moines News on 20 January 1914. It features Mr Skygack, the Man from Mars (who years before had had his own strip). Osgar is trying to find out what Mr Skygack eats and Adolf suggests bee’s knees, with unfortunate results.

It was a relatively short-lived frivolous slang fashion and only a very few such expressions have survived, of which bee’s knees is the best known, followed by cat’s pyjamas. Such surviving examples are, of course, extremely old-fashioned; they’re usually said with a knowing tongue-in-cheek attitude or to evoke the Twenties.

A British example from about the same period is the rather rude dog’s bollocks, the second word — variously spelled — being a slang term for testicles. Eric Partridge suggested that it arose as a way to describe the printer’s mark of a colon followed by a dash. This expression fits the pattern and period of the others, and might have been influenced by the American fashion. However, its original sense suggests it came out of a different tradition, since the full expression was it sticks out like a dog’s bollocks, meaning something obvious. It only became a general slang term for something excellent in the 1980s.

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Page created 20 Feb 1999; Last updated 21 May 2010