On Twitter, Siobhán Britton (aka @wigglymittens) shared a recipe from the magazine Glamour (UK edition) listing an unusual ingredient: “a bee’s dick of salt.” [Update, Aug. 29: As noted by Suzanne Wilder in the comments below, the recipe comes courtesy of the sweary Australian food blog Shannon’s Kitchen. The recipe on the blog is even swearier.]
The tweet was widely shared, including by the writer William Gibson, who was so enamored with the phrase “a bee’s dick” that he incorporated it into a new post-Charlottesville rallying cry: “Tolerate not even a bee’s dick of white supremacy.”
As many commenters pointed out, a bee’s dick, meaning “a very small amount or distance,” has been in common use in Australian slang for a few decades now. (Green’s Dictionary of Slang says it’s also a New Zealandism.) I went looking for examples and found it from the late ’80s.
On Google Books, there’s a snippet from a British mountaineering magazine called Mountain that’s dated to 1987: “We were within a bee’s dick of trying it when one day we rounded the arete and BLAM!” The dating on Google Books for periodicals can be a bit unreliable, so that might not necessarily be from 1987. In the news databases, the early examples are all from Australia, starting with reports of a comment made by the swimmer Angus Waddell in 1988 about an Olympic qualifying race.
Sportsmen and women, more at home with action than words, tend to be better at saying what they mean. Early this week a swimmer who missed Olympic selection in his qualifying race by just one-hundredth of a second was quoted as saying: “If I was a second out it would have been easier to accept but I was only a bee’s dick out.”
—Canberra Herald, May 20, 1988
Waddell, the former BBC schoolboy star who had hit the heights for Australia as a 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games high jumper and was attempting to clear the bar as a swimming sprinter, was too slow in the 50 m freestyle by the smallest timespan accepted in the sport — .01 sec.
“I was only a bee’s dick out,” was the somewhat less than official margin Waddell himself put on his loss to the clock.
—Queensland Sunday Mail, May 22, 1988
Waddell may have made it acceptable for other Australian sports figures to refer to close calls in this way (and for Australian newspapers to print it).
Melbourne trainer Lee Freedman admits Darren Gauci was a “bee’s dick” off being 1kg overweight on Abstraction in the Fourex Cup last Wednesday which meant he could have been replaced.
—Sydney Morning Herald, June 4, 1989
“We were a bee’s dick away from finishing their (Melbourne) season, but we didn’t have enough mongrel to put them away,” he [Fitzroy Football Club coach Robert Shaw] said.
—The Age (Melbourne), July 14, 1991
The idiom began showing up in Australian fiction around this time, too: Kathy Lette’s 1991 novel The Llama Parlour includes the line, “See, the reason my old man’s a delinquent is because he’s a gambler. My father would bet on the length of a bee’s dick.”
Despite being in print for a few decades, a bee’s dick sometimes gets the euphemistic treatment. Searching for “within a bee’s ___” in Australian sources, I found examples of a bee’s appendage, a bee’s protuberance, a bee’s dingle, a bee’s thingo, a bee’s package, a bee’s whatsit, a bee’s you-know-what, a bee’s proverbial, and simply a bee’s (“His beefy charges were sorely missed in Game 1 and he went within a bee’s of scoring what would’ve surely been the clincher in Sydney”). Even when they’re euphemizing, Aussies can’t help but be linguistically creative.
The origin of the expression is actually rather innocuous. The oldest variation on the theme of apian anatomy is a bee’s knee, defined as “a type of something small or insignificant” by the Oxford English Dictionary, citing examples in British usage all the way back to 1797:
1797 Mrs. Townley Ward Let. 27 June in Notes & Queries (1896) X. 260 It cannot be as big as a bee’s knee.
1870 G. M. Hopkins Jrnl. (1937) 133 Br. Yates gave me the following Irish expressions… As weak as a bee’s knee.
1894 G. F. Northall Folk-phrases 7 As big as a bee’s knee.
The earliest American example I’ve found is from 1833:
Waiter! walk a kidney three times before the fire, and bring it with me with a shallot as hot as the first broadside; and, d’ye hear, put a bite of butter not bigger than a bee’s knee on the bilge of it; mind that!
–Oliver Moore, The Staff Officer (1833)
And in Australia, Peter Macinnis has collected examples of this usage in the Trove news database going back to 1874.
Mr. CLIFT said they were willing enough to hold up their hands, but not one of them was game enough to come forward — not one of them had a heart as big as a bee’s knee.
—The South Australian Advertiser, Apr. 8, 1874, p. 2
A bee’s knee still gets used in Australian English to this day, along with other phrases involving non-phallic body parts, such as a bee’s wing, a bee’s kneecap, a bee’s leg hair, and a bee’s ear (all of which show up in a Google search on Australian sources for “within a bee’s ___”).
In the plural form (the) bee’s knees, the rhyming phrase took on new meanings in the twentieth century. As The Phrase Finder explains, bee’s knees at first was “just a nonsense expression that denoted something that didn’t have any meaningful existence – the kind of thing that a naive apprentice would be sent to the stores to ask for, like a ‘sky-hook’ or ‘striped paint’.” Then in the 1920s, the bee’s knees joined various other “nonsense terms to denote excellence” that combined an animal with a body part (the cat’s whiskers, the snake’s hips, the flea’s eyebrows) or item of clothing (the cat’s pajamas/pyjamas, the clam’s garter, the kipper’s knickers). The U.S. sportswriter T.A. ‘Tad’ Dorgan is credited with popularizing many of these, though besides the bee’s knees, few are remembered, except for the cat’s pajamas, the cat’s meow, and the cat’s whiskers. And British English has the dog’s bollocks.
Like the dog’s bollocks to describe something excellent, a bee’s dick is an earthier member of the “small unit of measurement” family of phrases pioneered by a bee’s knee. The Phrase Finder mentions a British phrase along these lines: a gnat’s bollock. And in a 2009 thread on Yet Another Cycling Forum, a number of other British possibilities are listed: a gnat’s nadger, a bee’s bollock, a gnat’s crack, and a midgie’s willy. But the Australian favorite, a bee’s dick, seems to be making new inroads in the U.K. and elsewhere, and it certainly livens up a recipe compared to boring old words like pinch, dash, and smidgen.
(Hat tip, Elizabeth Rounsavall and Denise Lee.)
The southern Germans (especially in Baden-Württemberg) use a very similar expression: “Muggeseggele” which basically means midge’s penis. It’s common in recipes, but it’s also used for all kinds of tiny amounts. I heard it a lot when I lived in Stuttgart.
I found a very short English Wikipedia article here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muggeseggele
This puts me in mind of another measure of miniscule distance, “within a cunthair of…”
In French, you do an “enculage de mouche/rat” (fly/rat buggering) when you split hairs.
In Dutch splitting hairs is “Muggenziften” (sifting mosquitos) or “miereneuken” (ant fucking).
Great to see an Aussie phrase here. I live in Australia and “bee’s dick” is a very common phrase Down Under. I think it’s hilarious and very appropriate at times. Yep, Aussies are very creative with this sort of thing.😂
I am surprised that “gnat’s whisker” is not in the OED as it is a common phrase of measurement.
The first US newspaper to have it was The Ohio Democrat on 3rd November 1898.
“I wuz flim-flammed to a gnat’s eye-whisker, I tell yuh.” The American Magazine, 1903.
The “height of a gnat’s eye” in Knightly legends of Wales or The boy’s Mabinogion
by Sidney Lanier 1899.
“The first example I found is cited by John Lighter in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang from 1840: gnat’s heel, a very small amount.” http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-wit2.htm
“… to a gnat’s heel” was also used in the Richmond Enquirer, 21st February 1841 in the description of a horse called Eclipse the Second.
While “gnat’s ass” may be a measurement the British “gnat’s arse” seems to always be with “Tight as a” meaning mean, a skinflint, a tightwad or just very tight in the general sense of close-fitting.
I have always hoped someone would find a connection between “dog’s bollocks” in modern British slang and the use of “Dog’s Stones”, “Dog’s Cods” and Dog’s Cullions” as names for native orchids with edible roots used for the production of salep or salop (from the Arabic meaning “fox testicles”). Salep is a highly esteemed tonic, aphrodisiac drink. This drink was so popular in the 18th century that the wild populations of the orchids in England were all but wiped out. It was said that there used to be enough orchids on Hampstead Heath to pleasure all the whores in Portsmouth. Unfortunately there are about four centuries between the two usages.
These orchids were also called bollockwort (as beallocwirt in 1300ish, ballokwort in 1500ish), then ballock’s grass and sweet ballocks after the English translation of Dodoen’s herbal came out in 1578. Not to be confused with the unidentified plant mouse-ballock, which might be a scarlet pimpernel.
Salep is still popular from Turkey to India though the wild populations are as endangered as ours are. Several species (including Dactylorhiza hatagirea and Orchis mascula) are being cultivated for salep production in India and are available from UK Ayurvedic suppliers if you want to try a sustainable version.
While looking this up I found a reference in the OED to a 1949 use of “dog’s ballocks” to mean “The typographical colon dash (:—)” “regarded as forming a shape resembling the male sexual organs” from E. Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang, Is this the earliest rude emoticon?
That’s from a very sweary (and funny) Australian food blogger, who describers herself as “not a tossbag-food-saint” and who started her blog “when I grew tired of being porked up the ring by other ‘healthy’ food pages.” https://shannonskitchen.com/