A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (78)?…


Bee in your bonnet

We use this rather odd phrase to indicate that someone is totally obsessed with something, usually a pet project. Often it is used somewhat pejoratively, the speaker suggesting that the person has taken leave of their senses or, at least, is someone to approach with caution. And you can see where the idea came from. Having suffered a wasp up my sleeve this summer I can vouch for the fact that when you have a creature that is capable of stinging you somewhere in your apparel, your one and only concern is to get rid of it.

The first recorded usage of the phrase appears in the Reverend Philip Doddridge’s Letters of 1790, “I suppose you have heard of Mr Coward’s pranks. He has, as the Scotch call it, a Bee in his Bonnet”. If the reverend is to be believed, and the fact that he calls our friends north of the border after their famous hooch suggests that we should exercise some caution, the provenance of our phrase is Scottish. The bonnet, best known as a Tam O’Shanter, was made of wool, hand-knitted, stretched on a wooden disc to give it its distinctive flat shape and felted.

As early as 1599 there were five guilds of bonnet makers in the major Scottish towns and at the turn of that century they were the normal headwear for men and servants, maintaining their popularity right into the following century.

Possibly the origin of the phrase is a variant of the 16th century expression, to have bees in the head, which was used to imply scattiness. John Heywood, a poet and court musician, made the link between bees and crazed thought in his collection of English proverbs, printed in 1546. A more extreme accusation was to have maggots in the head which implied you were suffering complete madness. Perhaps the Scottish twist was to replace head with their favourite form of headwear, the bonnet. We can’t be sure.

Ants in your pants

This is another example of a phrase where insects have invaded your apparel and is used to indicate that the unfortunate just can’t sit still, is a terrible fidget. Perhaps it is a more elegant alternative to a fidget-bottom.

Although I’m sure ants have invaded people’s clothing over the centuries, this seems to be a fairly recent expression. The phrase seems to have been popularised by one Hugh Samuel “Iron Pants” Johnson – perhaps he had a thing about pants – who as well as being a distinguished U.S general was in charge of the National Recovery Administration in 1933-34, charged with implementing Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. He may not have made it up but he certainly used it and put it out into what we call today the public domain.

Chick Webb and his Orchestra recorded a number in 1934 entitled I Can’t Dance (I Got Ants in my Pants) which may have taken up Johnson’s popular phrase or it may be that Johnson got it from the musician. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that pants is an Americanism for what we call trousers and that may be conclusive evidence that the phrase is American. Here in Blighty pants as a noun often refers to underwear whereas as an adjective it means something is not very good.


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