Not only do we care for amazing animals here at the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA, but our staff and volunteers are also a wonderful and rather interesting group of human beings. Just the other day, a millennial co-worker surprised me with an expression I would have assumed she’s far too young to know, suggesting that something she liked was “the bees’ knees.” When was the last time you heard that one, especially from the mouth of a thirty-something?
According to an on-line lexicography site run by the wise folks at the Oxford English Dictionary, this evocative, internally rhymed saying first showed up in the late 18th century, actually coined to mean something very small and insignificant which, one might assume, is on point for bee’s knees unless one happens to be that particular bee. Then just a few decades later in the 1920-30s, for reasons completely unclear, a whole bunch of new American slang expressions came into existence to call colorful attention to something or someone considered to be outstanding. Among those sayings, we find “the flea’s eyebrows” and “the canary’s tusks,” among others, as well as one still somewhat in use today, “the cat’s pajamas.” The people who theorize about such things suggest that, due to the obvious similarity in structure and pattern, “bee’s knees” was co-opted to join the ranks of snappy sayings for totally groovy people and stuff. Ok, so bee’s knees went from useless to wow, but why should any of these flat-out daffy declarations mean that something is praiseworthy?
The internet is oddly silent on this, so let’s figure it out on our own. Cats, fleas and bees are all creatures very common to most of us (tragically, as the result of climate change and pesticides, bees much less so than before), and so too were canaries in the 1920s when radio stations across the nation aired literal “singing canary programs.” But while the animal is quite familiar, when was the last time you saw your cat in pajamas? Do fleas even have eyebrows? Rarely does one spot a knee or any joint on a bee, and I’m quite sure a tusked singing bird is even rarer. And since rarity can make something more desirable, this whole topic is simply the bullfrog’s beard!