Have you ever actually had a bee in your bonnet? Yes?
Now we want to know why you were wearing a bonnet in the first place, but we’ll let that go.
We know you spent hours carefully selecting that bonnet, making sure it complemented your calico dress and brought out the blue in your apron, only to have the whole thing ruined by one nasty little bee.
You probably ran around, screaming, swatting at your head repeatedly as the little buzzer swarmed your head. You couldn’t think of anything else until he was on the ground, dead in a pool of his own honey.
Pretty harsh for somebody who wears a bonnet.
Callous acts of insect homicide aside, you’ve probably guessed this bit of slang is pretty old. University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan said it’s been in our language for about 400 or 500 years.
“Originally, it was ‘bees in one’s head’ or ‘bees in one’s brain’, and it meant that you had a fantasy or eccentric whim or that you were a little crazy on something,” Curzan said. “If somebody’s a little obsessed with something, they’ve got a bee in their bonnet, and they keep going after it.”
Bees have made their way into quite a few places in English, usually where human behavior matches that of bees.
Think a long car ride involving multiple cups of coffee as well as a Big Gulp. Once you got home, did you waste any time checking your mail or hanging up your coat?
“The OED cites [beeline] back to 1830,” Curzan said. “The idea was that when bees were returning to the hive, they made a straight line.”
In other words, they made a beeline. And so did you.
Bees aren’t the only creepy crawlies with their own slang terms.
Have you ever wanted to be a fly on the wall? Maybe somebody once put a bug in your ear. Does thinking about that give you butterflies in your stomach? Or, worse, have you ever had a fly in your ointment?
“’A fly in the ointment’ often refers to something detrimental, a drawback,” Curzan said. “It goes back to the King James Bible. In Ecclesiastes, there’s a line that reads ‘dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour.’”
Ointment, buttermilk, that old woman’s stomach, why can’t flies just stay out of places where they don’t belong?
Time to get the swatter out.