the mighty pomegranate (whymzycal) wrote in fandom_grammar,
the mighty pomegranate

Say What? The bee's knees / The whole nine yards

It's Friday, and that means it's time for another exciting "Say What?"! In today's installment, we're going to learn about two sayings whose current meanings probably originated in the U.S.—with examples from Person of Interest.

The bee's knees

This whimsical expression has been around since at least the early 1900s, when it was a fun, nonsensical little phrase of the sort used to tease apprentices or new employees, usually by sending them to acquire an object that didn't exist: striped paint, post holes, sky hooks, etc.

An example of this usage comes from the New Zealand newspaper The West Coast Times, which published this parody of a shipping report in August 1906:

a quantity of post holes, 3 bags of treacle and 7 cases of bees' knees

Similar parodies could be found in the U.S., too, like in 1909's The Shortstop by Zane Gray:

"How's yer ham trees? Wal, dog-gone me! Why, over in Indianer our ham trees is sproutin' powerful. An' how about the bee's knees? Got any bee's knees this Spring?"

The phrase's current and more enduring meaning, however, is that of excellence: to call something the bee's knees means that it's of the best or highest quality. Interestingly, this particular usage of the bee's knees has been linked to the Roaring 20s and the slang of the flappers, when almost any nonsensical phrase was used to denote a particular excellence. "The cat's whiskers" or "the cat's pajamas," "the snake's hips," and "the monkey's eyebrows" were similar expressions used to highlight a socialite's enthusiasm for and appreciation of anything she considered to be worthwhile.

This is a pretty easy saying to use in your fics, though (as always) you'll have to make sure it's the kind of thing the characters you're writing would be likely to say:

Finch cleared his throat. "Will you be seeing Ms. Morgan again this evening?"

Reese paused in a shadow and smiled. "I think so. I've got it on good authority she thinks I'm the bee's knees."

"Yes, well, when you have access to someone's phone, it's difficult for them to keep secrets," Finch said. "Though I'm skeptical she used those exact words."

The whole nine yards

This particular saying, which means all / the full measure of something, is interesting because nearly everyone insists that they know its origins. However, the general consensus among experts is that none of those origin stories are accurate. For instance, the whole nine yards has been attributed the length of ammunition belts in WWII aircraft; the volume of a standard concrete mixer; yardage in football; and the fabric in a Scottish kilt, a sari, a kimono, or a burial shroud (to mention just a few of the possible origins, as stated in a 2012 article in The New York Times).

The first use of a recognizable the whole nine yards in print, though, is from Indiana newspaperThe Mitchell Commercial in 1907:

This afternoon at 2:30 will be called one of the baseball games that will be worth going a long way to see. The regular nine is going to play the business men as many innings as they can stand, but we can not promise the full nine yards.

The phrase reappeared the next year in the same newspaper, but in a different context:

Roscoe went fishing and has a big story to tell, but we refuse to stand while he unloads. He will catch some unsuspecting individual some of these days and give him the whole nine yards.

And then, apparently, the phrase disappeared from print for the next 50ish years, when it suddenly made a comeback in the 1960s and gained traction over the next couple of decades.

So what happened? Journalist Jennifer Scheussler suggests that the phrase as we know it is probably a result of inflation, since instances of "the whole six yards" and "the whole seven yards" are found in newspapers from the early 1900s. And it's clear from these instances that the "yards" don't refer to a set measure of length; rather, the word "yards" acts as a synonym for "stuff."

Regardless of the origins you want to ascribe to this saying, it's a very easy one to use:

Carter raised her eyebrows at Reese's clothing. "Well, you're certainly thorough, John."

"If you're going to dress up for a fancy wedding, you should do it right. You know, tie and tails, the whole nine yards," he replied, adjusting his cuffs. "At least, that's what Finch said."

And that's it for this installment of "Say What?"! As you head into your weekend, feel free to make sure your next fic ends up being the bee's knees—go the whole nine yards and use any of the colorful sayings we've explored here at Fandom Grammar. You can find them all here at the Say What? tag.


"The Bee's Knees" at
The Whole Nine Yards" at
"The Whole Nine Yards" at The New York Times online
Tags: !say what, author:whymzycal, language:colloquial, language:old-fashioned

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