For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.
I had assumed that ‘the business’ for something great or outstanding was the original and that ‘the bee’s knees’ was a jocular version of this. Apparently, this is not the case. It seems that the bee’s knees came first and that this was then reinterpreted as ‘the business’. You live and learn. For example, the OED website has this:
The phrase was first recorded in the late 18th century, when it was used to mean ‘something very small and insignificant’. Its current meaning dates from the 1920s, at which time a whole collection of American slang expressions were coined with the meaning ‘an outstanding person or thing’. Examples included the flea’s eyebrows, the canary’s tusks, and one that still survives – the cat’s whiskers. The switch in meaning for the bee’s knees probably emerged because it was so similar in structure and pattern to these other phrases.
Cassidy’s claim is that this comes from the ‘Irish’ phrase an béas nuíosach, which he claims means:
Béas núíosach (pron. bæs núísǝċ, bæs núísǝh), fresh new style, novel manner; fig. the new thing.
Of course, this is not a real Irish phrase and invented phrases do not have figurative meanings. Try putting it in inverted commas and searching for it in any Irish dictionary, corpus, database, or indeed on Google itself. The only references you will find to it are in connection with Cassidy and his book. Note also the peculiar ‘system’ of transcription invented by Cassidy, using bits of outmoded Irish orthography (ċ), current Irish orthography (í), and the IPA (æ, ǝ).
Incidentally, go to the online Irish dictionary here to find out how you say ‘the bee’s knees’ in REAL Irish: https://www.focloir.ie/en/dictionary/ei/the+bee’s+knees