It’s the Bee’s Knees!

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?

Saturday_Evening_Post_cover_2-4-1922

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.

Detail of a vintage sheet music cover.

Detail of a vintage sheet music cover.

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!

Why We “Face the Music”

If you refuse to accept any unpleasant consequences of your actions, you may be told to “face the music,” whether you like it or not.

The origin of this idiom is a little blurry. How do you come to “face” something you can’t see?

One theory suggests that the phrase has a military history. When disgraced soldiers were kicked out of their regiment, drummers would allegedly play them out through their final march. Other references say that these soldiers had to sit on their horses backwards, forcing them to face and hear the drums, therefore “facing the music”.

This is not the only theory however, and it’s far from being historically proven.

Another story claims an origin with music in church. The organ often sat in the balcony in the back of a church; this was before electric blowers made the billows louder. So to better hear the music, the congregation turned around to face the music to hear it better.

Perhaps the Victor-Victrola record player, as described by this vintage advertisement, will help you literally face the music.

Perhaps the Victor-Victrola record player, as described by this vintage advertisement, will help you literally face the music.

Yet another tale suggests the phrase comes from theater, where a new, nervous performer would have to face the judging eyes of the audience and the orchestra pit despite any apprehensions.

Let’s turn to more solid evidence. The first printed appearances come from New Hampshire. The New-Hampshire Statesman and State Journal August 2 1834 edition contains this line: “Will the editor of the Courier explain this black affair. We want no equivocation – ‘face the music’ this time.”

The National Era has an excerpt of dialogue with an abolitionist senator, Mr. Hale: “Mr. FOOTE – As the Senator from New Hampshire is an aspirant himself, what does he think a candidate ought to do? Mr. HALE – (with promptitude and humor) Why, stand up and face the music.”

1850 brought an explosion of “face the music” usage (perhaps accounting for a great number of people with guilty consciences) and it was brought into regular use.

So what we do know is that “face the music” came into common use mid-1800s. As for the true origin of the phrase, well, that may never be fully proved.