Bee’s knees, a gnat’s whisker, knee-high to a grasshopper, a flea in your ear and other insect idioms

Idiom a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual word

I’m fond of saying that I have been an entomologist since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, which I automatically expect my audience to understand means since I was very young.

Knee-high to a grasshopper?

What I didn’t know was that this well known phrase only dates from about 1850 and replaced the earlier knee-high to a mosquito or bumblebee or splinter. I can find no explanation as to why this change occurred; perhaps it was because someone felt sorry that the Orthoptera didn’t have any idioms associated with them as opposed to the Hymenoptera which dominate the insect idiom world.  “Rightly so” I can hear the Hymenopterists exclaiming, “after all there are more of them than any other Order” (Forbes et al., 2018).

Hymenoptera

When I go into the Entomology Lab I expect it to be a “hive of activity” where everyone is as “busy as a bee” and there is a “real buzz”.

Strangely enough, despite the hymenopteran references I would hope that my students are all working on aphids, but then some people would say that I have “a bee in my bonnet” about them and I will definitely be making “a beeline” to the aphid cultures shortly after I arrive as I think that aphids are the “bee’s knees” when it comes to insects 🙂 I can get quite

waspish” when I hear people making disparaging remarks about aphids although I would never describe myself as getting as “mad as a hornet” over the matter. In fact I love aphids so much that if someone asks me why I do, I will never say “none of your beeswax” and you might think that I “have ants in my pants”  as I wait for an opportune moment to explain about the “birds and the bees” when applied to aphid reproduction.

Diptera

Erica McAlister author of The Secret Life of Flies will tell you that flies are where it’s at and it is certainly worth being “a fly on the wall” when Erica starts talking about flies in general.

Unless you have “the attention span of a gnat” you will be enthralled by her anecdotes. The only “fly in the ointment” is that some of her flies have absolutely disgusting habits.  Erica herself, “wouldn’t hurt a fly”, no matter how unsavoury its lifestyle. I have heard it said, that sometimes, the less strong-stomached members of her audience, can be seen “dropping like flies”.  I confess that I am a bit worried that if Erica reads this I will come within a “gnat’s whisker” of being slapped in the face 🙂 Speaking of gnats, I just found this expression in a detective novel published in 1932 (Wilkinson, 1932) “antiquated gnat of a custom”, but have not been able to find out exactly what it means and its origin – any suggestions welcomed.

Lepidoptera

No one could describe me as being as “gaudy as a butterfly” as my usual attire is a pair of blue jeans, a shirt with rolled up sleeves and a pair of desert boots, although I do have some butterfly-themed clothing.

Gaudy as a butterfly – nope

The previous sentence reminds me that I have written about dress codes in an earlier post,  and the role this might have in curing the feeling of “having butterflies in one’s stomach” before giving a talk. Speaking of nervousness coupled with shyness, something many of us feel in social situations, which can cause some of us to imbibe liquids containing alcohol, I find that even after a few drinks I am not much of a “social butterfly”, a garrulous drunk is probably the best description 🙂

Everything got a little bit hazy

Coleoptera

Now you might think that the Coleoptera, having, at the moment, the most species described would have provided us with a plethora of beetle inspired idiomatic expressions. Sadly as I “beetle along” in my “beetle crushers” I very soon come to the end of their influence on idiomatic English.  Just to make any coloepterist who might be reading this feel a bit better, the narrator in Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co (a humorous novel about late Victorian schoolboys) is nicknamed Beetle, possibly because Kipling, like me, could be described as “beetle-browed”.

Beetle-browed, although my wife has been known to describe them as looking like furry caterpillars

Siphonoptera (Mecoptera)

Leaving the beetles behind us we come across the Siphonoptera, the fleas. Some people might say I have “a mind like a flea” but did you know that fleas have been recently re-classified as parasitic scorpionflies (Tihelka et al., 2020), which might make those people who say they “wouldn’t hurt a flea” think twice about using that phrase or the term “fleabag”.

Insects in general

As someone whose favourite insects are Hemipteran, I would love to say that the greatest number of insect idioms are provided by the true bugs, but that would be untrue. In general, when non-entomologists use the word bug, they mean insects in general, a particular “bugbear” of mine. I would go as far as to say that it really “bugs me”. In fact, I’d love to put “a bug in someone’s ear” about it and if I came across a journalist using bugs correctly I’d certainly go “bug-eyed”. I’m writing this in my warm centrally-heated house, feeling as

Not only snug as a bug but an example of one of my bugbears!

snug as a bug in a rug” although once this pandemic is over I’m pretty sure that the “travel bug” will bite me, and I’ll be heading off to France to enjoy great food, good wine and plenty of sunshine.

References

Forbes, A.A., Bagley, R.K., Beer, M.A. et al. (2018) Quantifying the unquantifiable: why Hymenoptera, not Coleoptera, is the most speciose animal order. BMC Ecology, 18, 21.

Tihelka , E., Giacomelli, M.,Huang, D., Pisani, D., Donoghue, P.C.J. &  Cai, C. (202o) Fleas are parasitic scorpionflies. Palaeoentomology,3, 641–653.

Wilkinson, E. (1932) The Division Bell Mystery, George Harrap & Co Ltd, London. Reprint available via the British Library Crime Classics series

Glossary

Hymenoptera

a bee’s dick – a very small amount https://stronglang.wordpress.com/2017/08/21/a-new-cooking-measurement/

a hive of activity – a place/situation where everyone is busy

ants in your pants/antsy – agitated or restless due to nervousness or excitement

as busy as a bee – very busy

as mad as a hornet – very angry

bee’s knees – an excellent person or thing, of the highest quality

birds and the bees – a euphemism for the basic facts about reproduction as told to a child

none of your beeswax – none of your business

to have a bee in one’s bonnet – to be preoccupied/obsessed with something

to make a beeline – to move swiftly and directly towards something or someone

Diptera

dropping like flies – dying or collapsing in large numbers, giving up on or pulling out of an endeavour

fly in the ointment – a small problem which nonetheless spoils the whole plan

fly on the wall – an unnoticed witness

wouldn’t hurt a fly – used to emphasize how inoffensive and harmless a person or animal is

Lepidoptera

as gaudy as a butterfly – very colourful

social butterfly – a person who is socially dynamic, successful at networking, charismatic, and personally gregarious

to have butterflies in one’s stomach – to feel nervous/anxious/excited in your stomach

Coleoptera

Beetle along – hurry, scuttle

Beetle-browed – having shaggy and projecting eyebrows

Beetle crushers – large shoes/boots

Siphonoptera (Mecoptera)

a flea in (someone’s) ear – an unwelcome idea or answer

mind like a flea – jumping from one idea to another

fleabag – a dirty or shabby person or animal, typically one infested with fleas or a seedy and dilapidated hotel

wouldn’t hurt a flea – gentle and kind

Insects in general

as snug as a bug (in a rug) – very comfortable/cosy

bug-eyed – with bulging eyes, astonished, amazed

to bug someone – to annoy someone

to put a bug in someone’s ear about something – to give someone a hint about something

travel bug – a strong desire to travel; an obsessive enthusiasm for or addiction to travellin;

4 Comments

Filed under EntoNotes

4 responses to “Bee’s knees, a gnat’s whisker, knee-high to a grasshopper, a flea in your ear and other insect idioms

  1. Jonathan Wallace

    I was drawn like a moth to a flame to this article! I would imagine that when it get’s really busy in your lab everyone is rushing around like a blue-*rsed fly.

    Unfortunately when it comes to wildlife many people can’t tell a bull’s foot from a bee’s knee.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! Try bouncing “antiquated gnat of a custom” off @wayword on Twitter and I’m sure you’ll get an answer.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Eman zentane

    Great article Simon ..I know you are always busy like a Bee..God bless you

    Liked by 1 person

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