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Why is something that is the very best known as ‘the bee’s knees’?

This curious expression is one of many similar sayings for something that is the acme of excellence. We are all familiar with the cat’s whiskers (or the cat’s pyjamas, the cat’s meow, and the cat’s nuts), which originated in the roaring 1920s and which might well have been the first of its kind—it is said to have originated from the name of the adjustable wire of the early radio crystal sets. But, while that phrase may have endured into the twenty-first century, many expressions born in the same decade of the flappers and bright young things have, sadly, long since faded from view. There was a whole range of idioms describing ‘excellence’, most of them based on various parts of animals’ anatomy and other attributes. They include the canary’s tusks, the flea’s eyebrows, the bullfrog’s beard, the cuckoo’s chin, the kipper’s knickers, the caterpillar’s kimono, and, my own favourite, the elephant’s adenoids.

All of these expressions rely upon a jesting touch of nonsense with a bit of alliteration thrown in. They are precursors of the now familiar the dog’s bollocks, which according to the slang collector Eric Partridge was originally a printing term for a colon followed by a dash.

The bee’s knees’, curiously for an expression that evolved to mean ‘the very best’, first described something insignificant or very small; in the late 1800s there was a popular Irish expression as weak as a bee’s knees.

The humble bee has been the source of many other British expressions, including having a bee in one’s bonnet (an eccentric whim or craze on some point) and making a beeline for something: a straight line between two points on the earth’s surface, such as a bee was supposed to take instinctively in returning to its hive.

The spelling bee, meanwhile, a party assembled to compete in the spelling of words, is just one kind of gathering: in the US a bee is a meeting of neighbours to unite their labours for the benefit of one of their number, such as when farmers unite to get in each other’s harvests in succession. There are also apple-bees, huskingbees, quilting-bees, barn-raising bees, and even, in the early 1900s, public lynching bees. The word was chosen because of the social nature of the insect.

An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent.

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