The Bee’s Knees

According to Cassidy, this phrase is Irish and derives from béas núíosach, which he says means ‘the new custom’. Let’s examine this claim.

According to Ó Dónaill, béas means ‘habit; moral habit; conduct, manners’. And núíosach means ‘new, unaccustomed, green, unseasoned, unlearned; strange, novel.’

Béas and núíosach are both real words. So why don’t I accept that this is a real phrase? The problem is that languages are governed by subtle constraints, far too subtle to be explained adequately in even the most detailed dictionary. Suppose I said that this book is stinking garbage. (Which it is!) You would understand what I meant immediately. But suppose I then went to the dictionary and found that high is another word for stinking and that refuse is another word for garbage, would you still understand if I said that the book was ‘high refuse?’ Probably not. In other words, to combine words in a language, you need to have some grasp of usage, otherwise you will end up with phrases which make no sense.

Neither of these words is particularly common, and there is a far more usual way of saying something new, the word nuacht (also sometimes nuaíocht). There is a common phrase in Irish, go maire tú do nuacht, which means something like ‘may you live out your new thing’. In English, Irish people frequently use the expression ‘health to enjoy’ in the same circumstances. For example, if someone has just bought a new house, or a new car, the person they are speaking to will say go maire tú do nuacht! So the nuacht (or nuaíocht, as I would say) is the house or car. It is the new thing in your life.

Cassidy did not understand Irish and béas núíosach is not a real phrase. Try thinking ‘novel conduct’ as a translation of the effect this phrase has on the ear of an Irish speaker. Can you imagine anyone saying ‘That car is the novel conduct?’ (!)

Look it up on Google and you will see that every reference to béas núíosach is to bee’s knees and to Cassidy’s theories. Then look up go maire tú do nuacht and you will see that it is a real phrase and that it is mentioned by lots of people on lots of sites.

Finally, the most likely origin of the phrase is that it is a jocular mispronunciation of business. Both ‘it’s the business’ and ‘it’s the bee’s knees’ can be used interchangeably to mean something very good.

4 thoughts on “The Bee’s Knees

    1. Debunker Post author

      You’re absolutely right about that, Jeremy. It’s obvious that in the case of this book, many people believe it because they find something attractive about the story associated with it and not because it is based on any evidence. The foxglove debate is very similar. (Thanks for the heads-up on that – I wasn’t aware of it.) It seems that there is clear evidence that the name foxglove existed as far back as the Old English period but then someone writing in the mid-19th century invented the idea that it is a corrupt version of the glove belonging to the (wee) folk or fairies. This is attractive because it provides an easily understood explanation and it reveals a hidden ‘truth’ obscured by the supposedly inaccurate official version. I wish I knew how to dissuade naïve people from thinking with their feelings rather than their intelligence. I suspect that the people who read Cassidy’s trash with delight won’t bother reading blogs like this (or anything which doesn’t agree with their own opinions) with an open mind, unfortunately!

      Nice blog, by the way. I recommend anyone interested in language to check it out!

  1. Andrew Wigglesworth

    I’ve been reading through your blog and it’s all interesting stuff, and I’ve drawn some obvious conclusions about this Cassidy character.

    Anyway, I’ve always understood “the bees knees” as a nonsense phrase meaning “the best of the best” that was coined in the 1920s. There are a couple of other reasonably well known similar phrases that have survived such as “the cat’s pyjamas” and the popular though vulgar “the dog’s bollocks.” I was aware of some other’s like “the cat’s miaow.”

    Anyway, I did a search on “bees knees cat’s pyjamas” and came up with this interesting article which gives a deeper history of the phenomena:

    1. Danielomastix Post author

      You have a point, Andrew, and I would recommend that people follow the link you provide to get more information on the bee’s knees. This blog is basically devoted to telling people what a twat Daniel Cassidy was and how untrustworthy his etymologies are and its main weakness is that I can’t always provide detailed or authoritative information about where the words really do originate, though I have tried. It’s just that in the case of something like the bee’s knees, it’s quite hard to find really accurate information. My hunch is that it is a version of business and that the other sayings like ‘the cat’s pyjamas’ are modelled on it but that’s just a hunch and I can’t find any information on how old ‘the business’ is as an expression for something really good. If it turns out that the bee’s knees is found in the 1920s while the business is only found in 1960, then my theory has a problem!

      I do wonder about the 18th century bee’s knees meaning something very small and its link to the modern term. Can we be sure that the term wasn’t simply reinvented in the 1920s by coincidence by someone who had never read any 18th century literature and was unaware of its earlier use?

      Wherever it does come from, I’m quite sure that it doesn’t come from béas nuíosach, anyway!

      BTW, I have very fond memories of Coventry in the 1980s. No mean city!


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