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So the phrase "the bee's knees" approximately means "it's fantastic" (my definition at least!). But how did this phrase come about?

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I was positive this had been asked here before but I can't find it. I also can't find anything about "the cat's pyjamas" / "the cat's pajamas". I thought we had one or the other at least. –  hippietrail Nov 3 '11 at 16:13
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It's alliteration of the business, in the sense of exactly what you need to get the job done. But whilst I believe this commonly-held assumption helps the expression retain currency, it's probably not relevant to the original coinage (see below).

In the same vein, a (Cockney) friend of mine habitually refers to an excellent example of something (a fine wine, quality musical instrument, whatever) as the guvnor, where younger people might be more likely to say it was boss.

Admittedly, in this letter to Jonathon Swift (1667 – 1745) from his friend Dr Thomas Sheridan, the good doctor is just flippantly writing in phonetic style - but note I that he writes an ape is till a bout bees knees for an epistle about business. Clearly the aural pun itself isn't a recent innovation.

As regards how and when the bees knees started to be used as a term of approbation, the earliest clear example I can find in Google Books is this from 1923. World Wide Words gives more details of how this expression was part of a relatively short-lived frivolous slang fashion doing the rounds in 1920s America.

That craze spawned a plethora of such "animal/attribute" pairings, including elephant’s adenoids, cat’s miaow, ant’s pants, tiger’s spots, bullfrog’s beard, etc. Which are mostly long-forgotten now, apart from cat's whiskers/pyjamas.

Coarse as ever, we Brits came up with the dog's bollocks about the same time, though I think this was probably unconnected to the US fad.

But even though the US first came up with bees knees, it was actually the Brits who revived it, along with our own dog's bollocks, in the 70s and 80s. In particular, Viz magazine was always fond of these expressions (their hardback 1989 "omnibus edition" was called The Dog's Bollocks). All with due deference, no doubt, to the Sex Pistols 1977 album Never Mind the Bollocks.

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+1 Do you know where it came from? Country/Era? –  Django Reinhardt Nov 2 '11 at 21:24
    
@Django: Afraid I don't know. I'd guess it's quite old, and more likely English than American. Probably older than the cat's whiskers/pyjamas, and certainly much older than the dog's bollocks which I think are later formations from the same basic idea. –  FumbleFingers Nov 2 '11 at 21:36
    
Do you have a source for this? World Wide Words doubts the origin of alliteration from 'business'... –  John Bartholomew Nov 2 '11 at 23:31
    
@John: I'd forgotten all that stuff about the 20s. I've added some of it, but I really don't think we'd still be discussing the expression at all if us Brits hadn't revived it a few decades ago. And I do think the alliteration helps it survive. Here in SE England it's quite normal to say something like Ah! - that's the business, that is! of something exceptionally well suited to your needs. –  FumbleFingers Nov 3 '11 at 1:43
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@morphail: I don't understand. Clearly Thomas Sheridan saw the alliteration/aural pun a couple of centuries before the fad that saw "bees knees" enter the popular lexicon. And if some people think this is the origin, it's irrelevant whether that's actually true or not, in terms of why they think they're saying it, and therefore exactly what they mean by it. –  FumbleFingers Feb 21 '12 at 15:33
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I found some slightly earlier datings than 1923. The earliest 1907 makes the pun on business, some are just nonsense, and several 1922s are in the form [somebody/something]'s the bees' knees.

Here's the 1907 Mr. Goggles by Henry Collins Brown:

Bee-raising is a good side line for the farmer, especially since the swell restaurants have made a specialty of fried bees' knees. Such a *beesness*!

Bee-raising is a good side line for the farmer, especially since the swell restaurants have made a specialty of fried bees' knees. Such a beesness!

A probable 1909 in this nonsense in the Lyceumite and Talent:

Lou Beauchamp has "the little woman" with him on his southern tour, and as they sat discussing a luncheon of bees' knees and bears' ears at the Kimball House, Atlanta, yesterday, they both looked as fit as violins.

There are some other nonsense examples from 1914, 1918, 1920 and we can see it in the index of the 1918 Dialect Notes. It's a shame we can't read the full entry as it may give some more source info.

[somebody/something]'s the bees' knees

Suddenly in 1922 we find lots of examples, including an instrumental jazz song called "Bee's Knees" written by Ted Lewis and Ray Lopez, which is copyright 1921. Have a listen here.

A possible 1922 Radio broadcast: Volumes 2-3 suggests it was amateur radio slang:

2 FZ is Very Much Alive, and It is the “Bee's Knees" in Amateur Stations, as They Say in Our Language

Another possible 1922 is in The re-ly-on bottler: a ... magazine of ideas and ideals for the ...: Volumes 3-6:

His plant was Modern ; one might almost call it the Bee's Knees. But he couldn't make it Pay in these days when fifty Bucks won't go Further than a Thin Dime would before the War....

A 1922 North Western druggist: Volume 30:

One customer writes : "They surely are the bee's knees. One box sells two," says he.

A 1922 Cosmopolitan:

"Grandpa, you're the bee's knees, for a fact!" the flapper prob'ly says admirin'ly, with a killin' smile.

A 1922 Them was the good old days: in Davenport, Scott County Iowa by William L. Purcell also has a cat's pajamas:

... and then crashed a jazz-garden where a flock of sub-chasers and dumb-doras were rattlin' their dogs. We lined up a brace of Goldstein strangle-holders, who were the cat's pajamas and bee's knees — if you went for there blaah.

But the 1922 Chicago Dental Society's Bulletin, Volume 3 is the best:

Why not have a heart and become the bee's knees or the elephant's eye-brow or the dog's hind leg or whatever it is which constitutes an honest-to-goodness cat's meow, by registering early and avoiding the main rush ?

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