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)
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.