the bee's knees

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Attested since 1922, of unclear origin.[1] There are several suggested origins, but it may simply have been 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.[2] A popular folk etymology has the phrase referring to World Champion Charleston dancer Bee Jackson.[3] Another suggestion is that the phrase is a corruption of business[2][4] 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.[4]


the bee's knees (plural only)

  1. Used other than with a figurative or idiomatic meaning: see bee,‎ 's,‎ knee. Corbiculae.
  2. (idiomatic, colloquial) Something or someone excellent, surpassingly wonderful, or cool.
    We had strawberry shortcake for breakfast on Saturday and the kids thought it was the bee's knees.
    I used to play in a band when I was younger. We had a few fans and we thought we were the bee's knees.
    There is a new bee's knees every few minutes in New York.




  1. ^ Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, p. 45, Routledge, 1986 →ISBN.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Harry Oliver, Bees' Knees and Barmy Armies: Origins of the Words and Phrases We Use Every Day, John Blake Publishing Ltd, 2011 →ISBN
  3. ^ Alison Westwood, The Little Book of Clichés, Canary Press eBooks →ISBN.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Robert Allen, Allen's Dictionary of English Phrases, Penguin UK, 2008 →ISBN.

Further reading[edit]