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Birds and the bees

Q From Noah: I was talking to a friend and the phrase the birds and the bees came up, and I was wondering what the origin of it is.

A I take it you mean in the sense of explaining the basic facts about sex and reproduction to children?

The phrase the birds and the bees (sometimes further extended to birds, bees and butterflies) has been common in the language for at least the last couple of centuries to refer in a generalised way to the natural world (do journalists still refer dismissively to the natural-history column in their journals as “the birds-and-bees department”?). The alliteration has undoubtedly helped to make it a satisfactory formulaic expression.

Fumbling attempts to explain the facts of life to children often involved analogies with birds laying eggs and bees pollinating flowers. So it’s easy to see how the expression could have turned into a sarcastic reference to such attempts.

It’s so common these days as to be a cliché. To round off this explanation, I wanted to include a note to say how old it is. This is where I got stuck. You might be astonished to discover how few reference books even mention this phrase; not one of my extensive collection of works on euphemisms and suchlike expressions includes it. Because it’s so common in its literal sense, finding euphemistic instances in digital archives involves combing through masses of irrelevant material.

If you know your song lyrics, you may have in mind that mildly risqué Cole Porter number from 1928, Let’s Do It, which has the lines “Birds do it, bees do it / Even educated fleas do it / Let’s do it, let’s fall in love”. That’s certainly got the idea. However, the first explicit use of the phrase I know of is in a newspaper, the Freeport Journal Standard, dated 1939: “A Frenchman was born sophisticated: he knows about the birds and the bees. In consequence, French films are made on a basis of artistic understanding that does not hamper the story.” I might be out by a decade or two, or even a century or two, though my impression is that it’s relatively modern.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 25 Jun. 2005

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 25 June 2005.