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.
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- Used other than with a figurative or idiomatic meaning: see bee, 's, knee. Corbiculae.
- (idiomatic, colloquial) Something or someone excellent, surpassingly wonderful, or cool.
- Mark Israel, alt.usage.english FAQ
- Kevin Cook, Dubbel Dutch, Kemper Conseil Publishing, 2001, p. 222
- “The bee's knees” in Michael Quinion, Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books in association with Penguin Books, 2004, →ISBN.
- ^ Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, p. 45, Routledge, 1986 →ISBN.
- ^ “The-bees-knees” in Gary Martin, The Phrase Finder, 1997–.
- ^ “The bee's knees” in Michael Quinion, World Wide Words, 1996–.
- 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.