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Why Is It Called a ‘Spelling Bee’?

The origin of the word “bee” is still up for debate. It might come from the name of the insect, or it might come from a Middle English word for volunteering, but either way, it goes back to old-time social gatherings.

By
Mignon Fogarty ,
June 7, 2018
Episode #624

A Bee in Your Bonnet

The origin of “a bee in your bonnet” is more obvious. It simply relates to the agitation or intense focus you’d have if you had a literal bee in your hat or bonnet. You wouldn’t think about much else until you resolved the problem. The Phrase Finder website believes the phrase may be of Scottish origin because of some early references and because Scottish men wore caps called bonnets around the time the phrase emerged. In its earliest uses, it usually referred to someone who was thought to be crazy or eccentric.

It could also relate to another phrase, “to have bees in the head,” which is even more closely associated with having an irrational or crazy obsession.

Bees and Honey

Moving on, “Bees and Honey” is apparently Cockney rhyming slang for the word “money.” For example, I found a clip on YouTube where a British man is trying to rob another man and says “Give me the bees,” which he explains is short for “bees and honey,” meaning money.

The Guardian says that rhyming slang is about more than just rhyming—that the slang can also have a logical story behind it, and in this case, we go back again to the busy, hard-working nature of bees. You work to get sweet money, just like bees work to get that sweet, sweet honey.

Beeline

“Beeline” is another obvious one related to the behavior of bees. To make a beeline for something is to take the shortest path to it, just like bees always seem to take the shortest path back to their hive or to a source of pollen or nectar after another bee tells them where they found it.

Put the Bee on Someone

Finally, “to put the bee on someone,” seems to be a phrase that peaked in the 1940s. It means to put an end to something or to ask or pressure someone for money. I couldn’t find anything about the origin of the “put an end to something” meaning, but the “asking for money” meaning ultimately seems related to the volunteering for the community’s benefit. 

It seems that on the American frontier there often wasn’t enough money to pay preachers, so just like the community would gather in a bee to help a farmer husk corn, the community would gather in a bee to raise money or goods for the preacher; and if people didn’t donate, the organizers would pressure them, and that aggressive asking or begging for money or gifts came to be known as “putting the bee on someone.” 

The Oxford English Dictionary also says it could be related to the phrase “to sting someone,” which seems to have arisen around the same time. For example, they have a citation from 1931 from the book “American Tramp and Underworld Slang” that says, “To say ‘I put the bee on him’ usually means that the donor has been ‘stung,’ when he gives up the loan, since seldom is it repaid.”

And for a further extension, a footnote in H.L. Menken’s book “The American Language” says in addition “to put the bee on someone,” the phrase “to buzz someone” also meant to wheedle money.

Isn’t English fun?

Sources

Ammer, Christine. “bee in one’s bonnet.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2013. 

Ayto, John. “have a bee in your bonnet.” Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, 3rd edition. Oxford University Press. 2010.

Mencken, H.L., Ed. McDavid, Raven I. Jr. The American Language, 4th edition and two supplements, abridged. Knopf, New York. 1963. p. 727.

Webb, Garrison. “What’s in a Word?” Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville. http://bit.ly/2xHbe6R accessed June 4, 2018.

“6 Actual Names for Historical Spelling Bees.” Merriam-Webster Blog. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/alternate-spelling-bee-titles accessed June 4, 2018.

“A Bee in Your Bonnet.” Phrase Finder UK. https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/bee-in-your-bonnet.html accessed June 4, 2018.

“The Ultimate Guide to Cockney Rhyming Slang.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/jun/09/guide-to-cockney-rhyming-slang accessed June 4, 2018.

“bee.” The American Heritage Dictionary Online. https://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=bee  accessed June 4, 2018.

“bee.” Etymology Online. https://www.etymonline.com/word/bee accessed June 4, 2018.

“bee.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/16941 accessed June 4, 2018. (subscription required)

“sting.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/190388#eid20713651 accessed June 4, 2018. (subscription required)

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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