A few weeks ago I went ape-ian and delved into the origins of four bee-related phrases. This week, like bees round honey, I can’t keep away and am looking into some more, namely spelling bee, bee-stung, and to put the bee on. And then I will truly bee able to say, bee-n there, drone that, bought the t-shirt. [That’s enough! Ed.]
Social bees: spelling, quilting and otherwise
Spelling bees being such a big thing in the States, everyone will have heard of them. Quilting bees, sewing bees and knitting bees are still very much a live tradition, too. But historically it seems there were other kinds, as noted in the OED definition quoted further down.
As that definition states, what links the insects and this use of the word is bees’ social character.* And as the OED notes, this use was originally U.S:
‘A meeting of neighbours to unite their labours for the benefit of one of their number; e.g. as is done still in some parts,** when the farmers unite to get in each other’s harvests in succession; usually preceded by a word defining the purpose of the meeting, as apple-bee, husking-bee, quilting-bee, raising-bee, etc. Hence, with extended sense: A gathering or meeting for some object; esp. spelling-bee, a party assembled to compete in the spelling of words.’
The first quotation, from the Boston Gazette for 16 October 1769 (i.e. pre-independence), illustrates the social and feminine aspects of such gatherings:
Last Thursday about twenty young Ladies met at the house of Mr. L. on purpose for a Spinning Match; (or what is called in the Country a Bee).
In the nineteenth century in particular, it seems, quilting bees frequently took place. They were a way for women to socialize with one another, often away from the confines of their homes, since sometimes the bees took place in communal spaces such as church vestries. (One can only imagine how the reputations of their menfolk fared on such occasions.) The charming painting below depicts what looks more like a family bee.
The next OED citation is from an 1830 novel set in North America by the Scottish writer John Galt (he had spent some time in Canada):
I made a bee; that is, I collected as many of the most expert and able-bodied of the settlers to assist at the raising.
The ‘raising’ mentioned is the communal building of a barn, which was, in contrast to quilting and sewing bees, a male activity. And in the next quotation, in addition to a quilting bee, Washington Irving mentions a husking bee: a gathering to husk the harvested corn.
Now were instituted quilting bees and husking bees and other rural assemblages.
1849, W. Irving Hist. N.Y. (rev. ed.) vii. ii. 390, 1849
The earliest OED citation for spelling bee dates to 1876:
He may be invincible at a spelling bee.
Lubbock Elem. Educ.in Contemp. Rev. June 91
Not all social gatherings, however, were well-intentioned:
They have sometimes had ‘lynching bees’,..they have sometimes lynched men for murder, for arson, for rape.
1900 Congress. Rec. 31 Jan. 1369/1
Yet another gift to English as a whole from U.S. English. As the OED notes: ‘colloquial (orig. and chiefly U.S.) (of a woman‘s lips) attractively full and red, naturally pouting.’
(Complain if you will that that is sexist, but it’s hard to think of a man’s lips being so described.)
I’m trying to remember what other adjectives characterize lips and the only one I can retrieve is rosebud, though there’s another one at the back of my mind which I can’t dredge up for the moment…
Oh, yes, it’s just come back to me: Cupid’s bow. Meanwhile, the first OED citation for bee-stung is by the nineteenth-century journalist George Augustus Sala, sent by Dickens to Russia as a special correspondent:
The Russian beauties are either of Circassian, Georgian, or Mingrelian origin—dark-eyed, dark skinned, full bee-stung lipped, and generally Houri-looking; or they are the rounded German-Frauleins.
1858 G. A. Sala Journey due North xvi. 351
A more modern quotation retrieved from the OED is rather less flowery and decidedly more practical:
Unfortunately, we’re not all..blessed with flawless skin, bee-stung lips and come-to-bed eyes, so cheat on the big day!
2000 You & your Wedding Mar. 64/1
to put the bee on
TBH, I’d never come across this before looking at the OED entry for bee (whose definition picturesquely begins ‘a well-known insect’).
Perhaps my ignorance is not surprising given that the phrase seems to be dated U.S. slang, with two meanings: (a) to quash, put an end to; to beat; (b) to ask for a loan from, to borrow money from.
It’s a nice example of everyday wordplay since the second meaning is a sort of pun on ‘to sting someone (for money)’, itself also a U.S. invention (1903).
The first OED citation seems to refer to this second meaning:
It’s always open season for Americans over here. They sure know how to put the bee on you too.
1918, H. C. Witwer From Baseball to Boches 131
P.G. Wodehouse used it in the first meaning (‘to put an end to’):
The old boy..got the idea that I was off my rocker, and put the bee on the proceedings.
In Sunday Express 23 Oct. 9, 1927
* An alternative etymology, first propounded in a dictionary in Webster’s Third International (1961), suggests that bee in this sense is a separate word ‘is ‘perh[aps an] alter[ation] of E[nglish] dial[ect] been, bean voluntary help given by neighbors toward the accomplishment of a particular task’ and suggests it is ultimately cognate with boon.
** The entry was part of the 1887 fascicle, so whether this applies now I cannot say.