the bee's knees
Attested since 1922, of unclear origin. There are several suggested origins, but it most likely arose in imitation of the numerous animal-related nonsense phrases popular in the 1920s such as the cat's pyjamas, cat's whiskers, cat's meow, gnat's elbow, monkey's eyebrows etc.
A popular folk etymology has the phrase referring to the world champion dancer Bee Jackson. Another suggestion is that the phrase is a corruption of business but this may be a back-formation. The singular bee's knee is attested from the late 18th century meaning something small or insignificant in the phrase big as a bee's knee. Also as weak as a bee's knee is attested in Ireland (1870). It is possible that the bee's knees is a deliberate inversion of this meaning but is not attested.
Audio (AU) (file)
- (idiomatic, colloquial) Something or someone excellent, surpassingly wonderful, or cool.
- Used other than figuratively or idiomatically: see bee, -'s, knee. Corbiculae.
- Mark Israel, alt.usage.english FAQ
- Kevin Cook, Dubbel Dutch, Kemper Conseil Publishing, 2001, p. 222
- Michael Quinion (2004), “The bee's knees”, in Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books in association with Penguin Books, →ISBN.
- ^ Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, p. 45, Routledge, 1986 →ISBN.
- ^ Gary Martin (1997–), “The-bees-knees”, in The Phrase Finder.
- ^ Michael Quinion (1996–2022), “The bee's knees”, in World Wide Words.
- Harry Oliver, Bees' Knees and Barmy Armies: Origins of the Words and Phrases We Use Every Day, John Blake Publishing Ltd, 2011 →ISBN
- ^ Alison Westwood, The Little Book of Clichés, Canary Press eBooks →ISBN.
- Robert Allen, Allen's Dictionary of English Phrases, Penguin UK, 2008 →ISBN.