It’s not often that entomology encounters etymology but I was intrigued to know the origin of the expression ‘the bee’s knees‘, which is sometimes used to describe something that is exceptionally good.
Mistakenly relying on the wisdom of crowds I consulted the Urban dictionary to learn that “When bees flit from flower to flower the nectar sticks to their legs. The phrase “bee’s knees” means sweet and good, because the knees of the bee are where all the sweet, good stuff is collected.”
Both entomologists and etymologists will groan with despair. Bees don’t gather nectar on their legs, they use their mouths to sip nectar which they store in their crops for transport back to the hive.
Bees do use their legs to collect pollen – usually by licking their front legs and combing their body to pick up the pollen which they pass to the back legs for compaction and storage in specialised structures called pollen baskets. If you’ve ever tasted pollen you will also know it’s quite bitter. So although the bee’s knees are rather sophisticated, they’re hardly ‘sweet and good‘.
So it would appear crowds are not a great source of wisdom. Who would have guessed? I needed something more erudite.
Claims that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the source of this curious expression were more compelling- until I read this rather convoluted and tenuous explanation. Not convinced – so bah to the bard!
No, it seems ‘the bee’s knees‘ was just part of a lark that caught on in the USA in the 1920’s to make up nonsense phrases for something that was exceptionally good; phrases like ‘the ant’s pants‘ or ‘the cat’s whiskers‘ – an expression I haven’t heard in a long while.
Of course, we Brits are only too eager to move from the vernacular to the testicular so over here ‘the dog’s bollocks‘ gained currency and is now a widely used superlative.
Doubtless some innocents abroad will be puzzled by this British idiom and may turn to the Urban Dictionary to get it licked.
Don’t bother. The explanation really is as bad as you imagined!