the bee's knees

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Attested since 1922, of unclear origin.[1] 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.[2][3][4]

A popular folk etymology has the phrase referring to the world champion dancer Bee Jackson.[5] Another suggestion is that the phrase is a corruption of business[4][6] 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.[6] Another possibility is that this is a reference to the (visible) blobs of pollen in bees' corbiculae.





the bee's knees pl (plural only)

  1. (idiomatic, colloquial) Something or someone excellent, surpassingly wonderful, or cool.
    Synonyms: cat's meow, cat's pajamas, dog's bollocks, the bomb; see also Thesaurus:best
    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.
  2. Used other than figuratively or idiomatically: see bee,‎ -'s,‎ knee. Corbiculae.




  1. ^ Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, p. 45, Routledge, 1986 →ISBN.
  2. ^ Gary Martin (1997–) “The-bees-knees”, in The Phrase Finder.
  3. ^ Michael Quinion (1996–2024) “The bee's knees”, in World Wide Words.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Harry Oliver, Bees' Knees and Barmy Armies: Origins of the Words and Phrases We Use Every Day, John Blake Publishing Ltd, 2011 →ISBN
  5. ^ Alison Westwood, The Little Book of Clichés, Canary Press eBooks →ISBN.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Robert Allen, Allen's Dictionary of English Phrases, Penguin UK, 2008 →ISBN.

Further reading