What Makes Something the "Bee's Knees" Anyway?

Nov 16, 2018

Got a "bee in your bonnet?" Fighting a major "computer bug" on your laptop? Insect-themed idioms have found a solid place in our everyday language, and on this horticulture day edition of Talk of Iowa, we're finding out just how that came to be. 

This hour, Charity Nebbe is joined by Iowa State University Extension horticulture expert Richard Jauron and Iowa State University professor of entomology Donalod Lewis, who has written and researched on the topic of insects in language. 

In case you find yourself wanting to read more on the topic, below is the essay, "Insect-Infested Language," originally published by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Horticulture and Home Pest News.

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Way back in 1999, our attention was focused on the “Y2K Computer Bug,” a reminder of a point known well to entomologists; that is, “bugs” are everywhere.  Of course we see the real things throughout the landscape and garden but even more common are references and allusions to insects that pepper our daily speech.

Don’t believe me?  Think of how many things “bug” you in the course of a day.  Someone bothering you?  Tell them to “bug-off!”  Have you caught the flu “bug” that’s going around?  Something not working right?  It will when we get the “bugs” out of the system.  If you’re stressed you might want to curl up “as snug as a bug in a rug.”  And if you work in espionage you know how to “bug” a room with hidden microphones.

You can’t escape it.  By habit and custom we are likely to talk about insects whether we want to or not.  According to one widely distributed compilation, there are over 200 phrases, expressions or figures of speech that originate with insects.

The abundance of insects in our language may be due in part to the shear number of insects that commonly and constantly surround us.  Insects are a conspicuous and important part of our environment.  Also, insects have appearances, characteristics, activities and behaviors that can serve as convenient models or illustrations for points we want to make, both positive and negative.

Insects can be affirmative role models because we ascribe to them positive attributes such as industriousness and patience.  When it suits our purpose, however, we can capitalize on negative insect qualities such as lowliness, filth dwelling, blood sucking and stinging.

Figures of Speech

Many bug-based expressions come from a more or less superficial resemblance between the insect and an object.  For example, the butterfly stroke in swimming, the butterfly pork chop, the silkworm missile and the old-fashioned beehive hairdo.  Wasp-waisted may or may not still be a socially acceptable way to describe human anatomy.

Some phrases come from our interpretation of observed insect behavior.  I would like to be a fly on the wall.  He was mad as a hornet.  He was drawn to her like a moth to a flame.  She was a social butterfly.  They danced the jitterbug.  I didn't mean to stir up a hornet’s nest.  He was a fly in the ointment.

Incorporating the qualities of an insect, often negative, into an adjective is an effective way to emphasize a point.  Examples include fleabag hotel, flea-bitten dog, bug-eyed appearance, flyweight boxing division, an antsy feeling, moth-eaten clothes, and a stinging remark.

Numerous figures of speech stem from our relationships to insects.  He was so gentle he would never hurt a fly.  He squirmed like he had ants in his pants!  She has a bee in her bonnet.  I feel lousy.  And my personal favorite, don’t be such a nit-picker!

Some expressions use an insect for no apparent reason or for contrived implication.  I had butterflies in my stomach.  Shop at a flea market.  Put a bug in his ear.  You’re the bee’s knees!  Since I was knee high to a grasshopper.  She’s cute as a bug’s ear.  For obvious reasons, many of the older expressions in this category are thankfully vanishing from our vernacular.

Remarkable Bees

The social life style of honey bees and their assumed industriousness leads to many common expressions.  She was as busy as a bee.  It’s a beehive of activity around here.  We travel in a beeline when we’re in a hurry.  Ever ask, what’s the buzz?  The husking bee and the quilting bee used to be popular.

The products of bees are also useful expressions.  Sweet as honey.  Words dripping with honey.  You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.  None of your bees wax!

And then there are all those famous quotations about bugs.  “Go to the ant, thou sluggard” (Bible, Proverbs 6:6).  “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” (Mohammed Ali).  “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.”  “Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!”

Other places to watch for insect names and images are manufactured products (Honey Nut Cheerios), sports teams (Charlotte Hornets of the NBA), musical groups (Iron Butterfly and Sting), mixed drinks (grasshopper), automobiles (Plymouth Super Bee).

And while you’re looking for insects in our language, consider literature from classical (Poe’s “The Gold Bug”) to children’s (“Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White).  There are a few songs about insects (“La Cucaracha” and the “Blue Tailed Fly”), but a lot more movies (“Joe’s Apartment,” “Antz” and “A Bug’s Life” to name a few).

To those of you who still don’t believe our language is full of insects, all I can say is, Bah, Humbug!