Zambia’s deputy president, Guy Scott, the week before last, in the most arrogant of ways, described South Africans as thinking “they are the bee’s knees”. His remark came at the same time that the super-rich and well-connected Gupta family displayed the arrogance of bees that think they can fly anywhere they like to feast without proper permission.
Mr. Scott set me thinking, among others, about the full meaning and the origin of the expression “they think they’re the bee’s knees.” It also had me wondering whether bees actually have knees.
On the last question the answer is probably “yes”, although judged on the direction in which it hinges the bee's knee might more accurately be described as an elbow. On the meaning of the expression, there are also fairly clear answers available. While as to its origin, things are less clear.
To claim that you are the “bee’s knees” indicates that you think you are “the best” or maybe the most important, like a spokesperson of the Guptas claimed that South Africans should be grateful for the family’s job-creating involvement in this country.
Some sources claim that this notion about the importance of bees' knees comes from the fact that bees carry pollen in tiny bags in the mid-section of their legs.
A number of sources claim that the expression was coined in the 1920s by an American cartoonist, Tad Dorgan. He is also credited with the creation of expressions such as "the cat's pyjamas", "the flea's eyebrows" and "the canary's tusks".
Although the cartoonist might have popularised the expression, it seems clear on a number of counts that the 'bee’s knees' expression precedes the days when Mr. Dorgan plied his trade. It was actually a reinvention of an 18th century expression, in which “bee’s knees” indicated something very tiny.
At the start of the 20th century it was also used to indicate the nonsensical, as in a humorous piece in the New Zealand newspaper, The West Coast Times, in August 1906, which listed the cargo carried by the SS Zealandia as “a quantity of post holes, three bags of treacle and seven cases of bees' knees”.
And the American author Zane Grey in a 1909 story, with the title, The Shortstop, has a city slicker teasing a rural guy, asking him about farm products he might have for sale: "How's yer ham trees? Wal, dog-gone me! Why, over in Indianer our ham trees is sproutin' powerful. An' how about the bees' knees? Got any bees' knees this Spring?"
The meaning of the more modern expression, as we know it today, developed from the expression that some think they are the be-all and end-all of everything. As it goes with catchy expressions, this was a bit long-winded and was shortened to “he thinks he is the b’s and e’s of all", which eventually became "the bee's knees".
About the meaning and origins of the other term often used recently to describe both Mr. Scott’s pronouncements on South Africa and the Guptas' disrespect of rules applying to other mere mortals, arrogance, no guesswork is needed. Most dictionary definitions we could find go more or less as follows: making claims or pretensions to superior importance or rights; overbearingly assuming; and insolently proud.
The word arrived in English during the 14th century via the French word arrogant which in turn got it from the Latin wordarrogant,meaning “claiming for oneself”, from the verb arrogare.
Arrogare is formed from ad (to) plus rogare (ask). By the time the term arrived in French, it took on the meaning of making or implying unwarranted claims to dignity, authority, or knowledge. And there we have the modern species of men we came to know so well in recent times as South Africans.
That the Gupta family and Mr. Scott are “birds of a feather”, as in, of the same kind, raises no real argument. As the 16th century proverb, coined by William Turner in his 1545 satirical The Rescuing of Romish Fox has it, "Byrdes of one kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together." This became the “birds of a feather flock together” that we know today.
What we maybe should ask ourselves is, why the heck do they flock to South Africa? Is it because they are under the impression that here they will find easy feeding grounds?