I woke up this morning in a contemplative mood. I was pondering grief, death, and the etymology of the phrase bee’s knees.
What in tarnation does it mean? Do bees have knees?
I was certain this expression, which means “fantastic, supreme,” must be an Americanism from the 1920’s, a renaissance for slang.
Fiddlesticks! According to language specialist Matthew Male at Future Perfect, it isn’t American at all. The term derives from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
” . . . that but this blow/Might be the be-all and the end-all. . . ” (I.vii.4ff)
The phrase “be-all and end-all” became a popular saying. It was so familiar that people shortened it to “the B’s and E’s.”
“B’s and E’s.” Say that five times really fast. What does it sound like? Right ho! There you have it.
That brings me to swell. Dictionary.com says it was first used to mean “good, excellent” in 1897, much earlier than I thought:
“The riverboat was swell!” said the dapper gentleman in the white, straw hat.
Later, in 1930, it emerged as a stand-alone interjection:
Joe asked, “How was the grammar lecture?”
“Swell!” George said, beaming.
A synonym of swell, and one I’ve also wondered about, is hunky-dory. According to phrases.org.uk, the first record of this expression is from an American (with possible Irish influence) song. Again, it did not originate in the Roaring 20’s but much earlier: 1862. Here are the lyrics which I quote from the website:
One of the boys am I,
That always am in clover;
With spirits light and high,
‘Tis well I’m known all over.
I am always to be found,
A singing in my glory;
With your smiling faces round,
‘Tis then I’m hunkey dorey.
And on that note, I will sign-off, hoping your day is the bee’s knees.