In Words

bee

I learnt an interesting thing this week. Indulge me if this is common knowledge, but I was informed for the first time in my life that a bumblebee and a honeybee are two completely different things. That’s right! I don’t know about you but I always assumed that the bumblebee was part of the whole honeybee hierarchy, along with workers, drones and queens, but no: bumblebees keep themselves very much apart.

They do make a bit of honey but only for personal consumption. They live in holes in the ground, in much smaller colonies than honeybees (50-400 as opposed to 50,000-60,000) and they can sting more than once. There are 24 different species of bumblebee in the UK but just one species of honeybee.

Which is all by the by because the real question is this: why is a spelling beeso called? The ‘spelling’ bit is obvious but why a ‘bee’? This, of course, is one of those strange terms that has come into English parlance from America but, as with many of those dreadful Americanisms (such as ‘faucet’ and using Zs instead of Ss), it actually originates from here.

Americans have been using the word ‘bee’ to mean a gathering or get-together since the 18th century but the word is believed to derive from the Old English ‘ben’, meaning prayer or favour. From ‘ben’ came ‘bene’ and from ‘bene’ came ‘bean’, meaning help given by neighbours. From there it was a simple step to knock the ‘n’ sound off the end and expand the definition to mean a gathering.

Have a buzzing weekend.

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