Q: I recently tasted a mixed drink called the bee’s knees. It was delicious, and got me to thinking. Where does the expression “the bees knees” come from?
A: The phrase dates back to the 1920s, and refers to an extraordinary person, thing, idea, and so on, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.
The first published citation in Random House is from Fighting Blood (1923), a short-story collection by H. C. Witwer: “You’re the bee’s knees for a fact!”
Witwer wrote stories for Collier’s magazine and was also a newspaper columnist, humorist, and screenwriter. In fact, one of his silent film shorts was called “Bee’s Knees” (1924).
But why a bee, and why knees? It’s probable that the expression is merely rhyming slang, along the lines of “the eel’s heels,” “the gnu’s shoes,” “the owl’s bowels,” and so on.
The expression is similar to several other whimsical Jazz Age phrases that sprang up in the 1920s: “the cat’s meow” (1921), “the cat’s pajamas” (1922), “the cat’s whiskers” (1923), and “the eel’s ankle” (1923, Witwer again).
I’ve found many other examples of zoological whimsy in various slang dictionaries: “the clam’s cuticles,” “the caterpillar’s spats,” “the elephant’s fallen arches,” “the elephant’s instep,” “the frog’s eyebrows,” “the pig’s whiskers,” “the snake’s toenails,” and more.
During Prohibition, the drink called “the bee’s knees” made its debut. The ingredients: honey, lemon juice, and gin.
David A. Embury, in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, says the original version was vile – heavy on the honey to help the bootleg gin go down. But with real gin and less honey, Embury says, the drink can be the bee’s knees.