The Roaring Twenties was a great époque. Apart from being the era of the Flappers, it was also rich in arts and literature. It also gave birth to a slew of new expressions and words’ some of them survived until today.
Animal phrases were used to suggest that something was especially good. Phrases like “The Bee’s Knees” and ‘The Cat’s Whiskers” (and the crude “The Dog’s Bollock”) are still used today. But others, such as ‘The Sardine’s Whisker”; ‘The Elephant’s Instep”; ‘The Snake’s Hips” and, best of all, ‘The Kipper’s Knickers” did not make it the 21st century, as did “The Flea’s Eyebrows” and “he Canary’s Tusks”.
There’s no profound reason to relate bees and knees other than the jaunty-sounding rhyme. In the 1920s it was fashionable to use nonsense terms to denote excellence. Hence, ‘the snake’s hips”, “the kipper’s knickers”, “the cat’s pyjamas/whiskers”, “the monkey’s eyebrows” and so on were coined.
A printed reference appeared in the Ohio newspaper The Newark Advocate, April 1922, to inform the general public about the latest coined phrases under the heading: ‘What Does It Mean?’ The article explains:
“That’s what you wonder when you hear a flapper chatter in typical flapper language. ‘Bees Knees.’ That’s flapper talk. This lingo will be explained in the woman’s page under the head of Flapper Dictionary.”
The Bee’s Knees 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”.
The switch in meaning for the bee’s knees probably emerged because it was so similar in structure and pattern to other phrases.