The Grammarphobia Blog

Is there a bee in your bonnet?

Q: It can be difficult putting up with a bee in one’s bonnet—and where did THAT one come from?

A: Persistent (and perhaps crazy) ideas have reminded people of bees buzzing about the head for 500 years.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “to have bees in the head or the brains,” or “a bee in one’s bonnet,” means to have “a fantasy, an eccentric whim, a craze on some point, a ‘screw loose.’ ”

However, standard dictionaries generally say you don’t have to be nutty to have a bee in your bonnet. The expression can refer to having an idea, a notion, or a fancy as well as an obsession.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, defines “a bee in one’s bonnet” as an impulse, a notion, or an obsession. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines it as an eccentric notion or a fancy.

The earliest recorded example in the OED is from Virgil’s Eneados, Gavin Douglas’s Middle Scots version of the Aeneid:

“Quhat berne be thou in bed, with hede full of beis?” (“What, man, rot thou in bed with thy head full of bees?”)

The OED dates this citation from 1553, but scholars say Douglas finished his translation in 1513.

In a comic play written around the early 1550s, Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister, we find the same image: “Who so hath suche bees as your maister in hys head.”

A century later, bees began invading brains. Here’s a line from Samuel Colville’s Mock Poem (1751): “Which comes from brains which have a bee.”

Bonnets entered the picture in the mid-19th century. The OED cites an essay Thomas De Quincey wrote for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1845):

“John Hunter, notwithstanding he had a bee in his bonnet, was really a great man.”

Here’s a 1935 example, from Oliver Wendell Holmes, cited in the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged: “He has the presidential bee in his bonnet.”

And in case you’re inspired to ask, we’ve written blog posts before on the phrases “bee’s knees” and “spelling bee.”

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