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The Bee’s Knees and the Cat’s Whiskers

As part of the Printemps Anglophone, the Bee's knees and Cat's whiskers brings you a selection of the quirkiest phrases in the English language, with examples, short explanations and our guess on the phrase's origin. 
> By Helen Landau and Molly Gilbertson.

The Bee’s Knees

– “My new phone is the bee’s knees. I can do so much with it!”
– “If we want the best, we need to hire Angela. She’s the bee’s knees when it comes to designing wedding dresses.”

The bee’s knees, which translates literally as les genoux de l’abeille, is one of a number of expressions, like ‘the cat’s whisker’s’ or ‘the tops,’ which imply excellence. It means that something, or someone is exceedingly good, greatly admired or ‘the best’. Like many idioms, its etymology is debated. Some sources suggest it is a corruption of ‘the business’ (the beezneez), another term with a similar meaning; others say it is a reflection of the special design of bee’s legs, with have small bags to collect pollen. Some believe it always was just a nonsense expression, based on a pleasing rhyme.

The idiom emerged in the ‘roaring twenties’, when picturesque terms became very popular; the kipper’s knickers is another such expression, sadly no longer used. Today, the bee’s knees sounds slightly dated and although it is still employed, it is often in an ironic sense.

“That guy is always talking about how wonderful he is. He thinks he’s the bee’s knees.”
– “When I was sixteen, I had this purple velvet jacket and when I wore it, I thought I was the bee’s knees.”

Getting your ducks in a row

Notre expression anglaise du jour se traduit littéralement par “aligner ses canards/mettre ses canards en rang”. Elle s’utilise pour désigner quelque chose qui est très bien organisé et elle se réfère aux canetons qui suivent leur maman à la queueleuleu.

“We’re having an inspection on Friday, so we need to make sure we have all our ducks in a row.”
– “I was impressed with her proposal. She had all her ducks in a row.”

To have or to get your ducks in a row (literally “avoir/mettre ses canards en rang”) is an expression meaning to have a plan, or a working practice that is well organised and thought through, down to the little details.

There are many hypotheses about the origins of this expression. The one that seems most likely to us, is as a reference to the mother ducks we observe at springtime, swimming with a neat line of ducklings paddling along behind them. After all, when all the ducklings are in the row, all is right with the world!

We will be back soon with another expression – that is, if we manage to get all our ducks in a row!

Pardon my French

“That film was crap – if you’ll pardon my French”.
– “That guy is, excuse my French, an ass-hole.”

Traduite littéralement par “Excusez mon français”, cette expression n’a rien à voir avec la difficulté du locuteur à s’exprimer dans la langue de Molière. En anglais, on l’utilise pour s’excuser d’avoir été vulgaire !

The phrase, to pardon or excuse one’s French (“excusez mon français”) is nothing to do with the speaker’s struggles with French grammar or pronunciation. It is used as a way to excuse a crude or vulgar expression. It is not intended to be derogatory to the French language. It is rather, a slightly humorous way to minimise the impact of what has just been, or is just about to be said. It almost invites the listener to share the fantasy that they did not just hear a profanity, merely some strange foreign word. 

Some sources suggest that the meaning comes from the fact that the French culture is sometimes considered a little ‘racy’ by the English speaking world. The expression has, in fact, been traced back to at least the 19th century. It is believed that its meaning was, at first, literal; the aristocracy, who would often speak French well, would sometimes drop a French phrase into conversation. If it became obvious that they were not understood, they would apologise by saying : excuse my French.

To spend a penny

– “Pete’s just spending a penny. He’ll be back soon.”
– “If you need to spend a penny, go now as there are no facilities at the lake.’

Se traduisant littéralement par “dépenser un sou”, cette expression signifie en fait “aller aux toilettes”, en référence aux premiers toilettes payants en Angleterre, qui coûtaient un “penny”.

Spending a penny (dépenser un sou) is a very British euphemism for going to the lavatory. The first coin-operated public toilets were introduced in Britain in the 1850s. They were accessed by putting an old penny in the lock on the door. The phrase ‘to spend a penny’ emerged somewhat later. 

Another such expression is ‘to go and powder my nose’, which dates from the days when women’s facilities were often called ‘powder rooms’. The usage of such euphemisms has decreased as society has become less squeamish about referring to ‘going to the loo. ’American’s will still most commonly use slightly coy expressions such as going to ‘the washroom’ , ‘the bathroom’, or ‘the little boy’s/girl’s room.‘

The origins of the phrase ‘the loo’ itself are much debated. The explanation we like the best is that it came from the French expression ‘garde à l’eau!’, which became corrupted into the word gardyloo (first recorded use in 1622).
Gardyloo was used in Scotland, as a warning to anyone passing by, when when the contents of a chamber-pot were emptied from a window into the streets below.

Pulling someone’s leg

” I thought Ben was pulling my leg when he said we’d won the big prize.
– “You forgot the tickets? Come on, you’re pulling my leg!

“Pulling someone’s leg” (literally tirer la jambe de quelqu’un) means to tease or joke with someone by telling an untruth.  The intention is usually playful, such as to get someone to believe a fantastical story, rather than malicious. Another humorous expression derived from it is “Pull the other one, it’s got bells on it, which is used to suggest incredulity (and implies the speaker keeps bells on their other leg for just such occasions).

You were asked to audition for the next James Bond movie? Pull the other one, it’s got bells on it!

Our original research suggests that the expression is derived from a Victorian version of the parlour game, truth or dare. Small boys would be paid to hide under the table and pull the leg of people who they felt were not telling the truth. Actually we are pulling your leg.  The idiom does date back until at least the late 1800s, but while there are theories about its origin, none of them have many facts to back them up and so its etymology remains a mystery.