4-minute read

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
W.B. Yeats.

Nowadays we’re all relentlessly exhorted to keep or make our gardens bee-friendly.

Earlier in the summer it was a joy to see how many swarmed around the burgeoning thyme. Now, in our descent into autumn, a few drowsy hangers-on float about the giant hydrangea. Coincidentally, at the moment I’ve got a particular bee in my bonnet: metaphors derived from the animal kingdom.

A conversation with my partner set this train of thought chugging along, and then all of a sudden, we were going full steam and writing down dozens of animal-related words and idioms. (Yes, I know, we should ‘get out more’ as the jolly old Private Eye meme goes, but we quite like it at home.)

Anyway, among the words I’ve lighted on [Geddit!] in this connection comes bee. Whether that name is onomatopoeic I cannot say. It’s from Old English bēo, which is of Germanic origin and is related to Dutch bij and German dialect Beie (the modern German is Biene).

As with so many other entries in the OED, once you start to look, the miracle of polysemy hits you. Well, not really a miracle, more an example of the economy of language: just re-use the same configuration of sounds while attaching a new meaning to them as the years move along. This diminutive apian certainly has more than its fair share of meanings. Here we’ll look at just four (so as not to tax you too much with my verbosity), in strict historical order, as per the OED.

What intrigues me is how long it can take for a word to grow particular metaphorical wings. Or conversely, how quickly that can happen with certain other words & meanings.

Rather younger than I suspected is…

busy bee

Meaning  1 b. Often used as the type of busy workers.

First recorded in 1535, this metaphor was later taken up by that Alexander Pope of English hymnody, Isaac Watts:
c1720   I. Watts Divine & Moral Songs   How doth the little busy bee Improve each shining hour!

Those pursed lips look a little censorious to me.

Anyone who has ever attended Anglican or related services will surely remember Watts’

‘When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.’

which I’m sure I must have sung several times in school assemblies.

The trope of bees as workers goes back at least as far as Virgil, but that’s another matter.

a bee in one’s bonnet

It’s meaning category 5 in the OED, defined as follows:

To have bees in the head or the brainsa bee in one’s bonnet: i.e. ‘a fantasy, an eccentric whim’, a craze on some point, a ‘screw loose.’ (Cf. maggot n.1 2a, and French grille.)

Bear (or, as too many write, bare) in mind that this 1887 entry has not yet been fully updated for OED3. Hence the seemingly eccentric (‘a craze on some point’) language.

Anyway, to my mind the way a bee lights on a flower, hovers, lifts off, then lands on another, then repeats that recursively ad infinitum strikes me as a perfect analogue to the way an obsessive thought settles, lifts off, hovers for a while, but then inevitably returns. (I should know: I’m obsessive.)

The first OED citation is from a Scots translation of Virgil’s Aeneid; or rather, from the prologue to Book VIII.

1553   G. Douglas in tr. Virgil Eneados viii. Prol. 120   Quhat berne be thou in bed, with hede full of beis?

(Quhat = What; berne = poetic word for ‘man’)

The next is from that Elizabethan proto-comedy that anyone studying Elizabethan drama was once forced to read:

a1556   N. Udall Ralph Roister Doister (?1566) i. iv. sig. C.ij   Who so hath suche bees as your maister in hys head.

But we had to wait for De Quincey to equip the phrase with its now customary titfer:

1845   T. De Quincey Coleridge & Opium-eating in Blackwood’s Edinb. Mag. Jan. 124/2   John Hunter, notwithstanding he had a bee in his bonnet, was really a great man.

(Note the use of notwithstanding directly as a conjunction without that.)

Thomas De Quincey; photogravure after an 1855 chalk drawing by James Archer

beeline for

bee-line  n. a straight line between two points on the earth’s surface, such as a bee was supposed instinctively to take in returning to its hive.

The OED notes this as first in print in an American source (1830). Thanks, America, for yet another crucial ingredient of our joint lexicon!

He of The Raven used it:

1845   E. A. Poe Gold-bug in Tales 35   A bee-line, or, in other words, a straight line, drawn..to a distance of fifty feet.

Nowadays it is generally not hyphenated and is almost invariably used in the set phrase ‘to make a beeline for’.

bees knees

What’s intriguing here is how it developed. Originally, as the OED puts it, it was ‘a type of something small or insignificant’:

1797   Mrs. Townley Ward Let. 27 June in Notes & Queries (1896) X. 260   It cannot be as big as a bee’s knee.

At this stage there is only one knee.

Gerard Manley Hopkins took the phrase to be Irish:

1870   G. M. Hopkins Jrnl. (1937) 133   Br. Yates gave me the following Irish expressions... As weak as a bee’s knee.

Yet this next quotation is from a book about the folk phrases of four West Midlands counties (Gloucs., Warks., Staffs. & Worcs.)

1894   G. F. Northall Folk-phrases 7   As big as a bee’s knee.

Sometime in the first decade of the twentieth century it started to be used as a teasing or nonsense phrase, in the same was as sky-blue pink for a non-existent colour.

Then, in 1920s US flapper lingo, its meaning was flipped, thus making it a sort of contronym of the original, meaning the ‘acme of excellence’. This meaning can be antedated to a year before the first OED citation, which follows:

1923   H. C. Witwer Fighting Blood iii. 101   You’re the bee’s knees, for a fact!

Apart from those phrases below mentioned by Mencken, bee’s knees belonged to a broad menagerie of fanciful animal phrases, including the kipper’s knickers and the cuckoo’s chin. Made endearing by its rhyme, it has survived along with the cat’s whiskers/pyjamas.

1936   H. L. Mencken Amer. Lang. (ed. 4) 561   The flea’s eyebrows, the bee’s knees and the canary’s tusks will be recalled.

(The dog’s bollocks, though, shows that the pattern is not entirely dead.)

As for ‘the bee-all and end-all’, as I was writing this, I bet myself there would be an eggcorn for ‘be-all and end-all’ and sure enough there is. Here’s an example:

In turn, that consensus is cultivated by the repeated slogan that prosperity is the bee all and end all of political achievement .


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