It’s hard to think back to the flappers of the 1920s without evoking the phrase “bee’s knees”. The phrase implies something of the highest quality, but what is it about the nook of a bee’s leg that suggests the epitome of excellence?
One possible origin comes from the 1920s dancer Bee Jackson. She made the Charleston popular and became world famous for it. It’s possible that “bee’s knees” comes from Jackson’s dancing; however, the phrase precedes her fame.
Starting in the late 18th century, the expression was simple nonsense, meaning something useless or meaningless. As this source cites, one New Zealand newspaper in 1906 listed the cargo of the SS Zealandia as ‘a quantity of post holes, 3 bags of treacle and 7 cases of bee’s knees.’ And that’s only one of many similar uses of the phrase.
Flappers in the 1920s, ever the fashionable crowd, loved to make nonsense phrases out of animal-related terms. The “cat’s pyjamas,” the “snake’s hips,” the “flea’s eyebrows,” the “bee’s knees” – all of these meant something that was at the height of cool. Designated as “flapper talk,” not much of the lingo stuck around, but at least “bee’s knees” is here to stay.
Flapper lingo is all-around a creative and fun way to talk. Check out this list and see if you can bring back some of these words & phrases — and tell us your favorites!