[Ads-l] the birds and the bees

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Mon Dec 20 11:39:29 EST 2021


Bees pollinate flowers (it's what they do), but few birds pollinate. In
North America, only hummingbirds practice ornithophily. (Not as kinky as it
sounds: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ornithophily
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ornithophily> .)

Pre-1936 exx. use the phrase as nearly synonymous with "idle talk of
romantic love."  Hence the familiar metaphor for "sex."

1927 Beaumont [Tex.] Journal (Aug. 13) 4: Regularly...in the
afternoon...they used to walk out together toward the prairies, talking
about the birds and the bees and the fresh green things - oh, what do folks
similarly circumstanced talk about?

1928 Washington [D.C.] Star (Gravure Section) unp.:  Men Women Trust...One
of those 10 to 15 per cent stock investment boys talking about the birds
and the bees and the flowers to one of those little widows who, for no
reason at all, save intuition, is about to entrust her savings to his
tender care.

Had the sexual meaning been widely known at the time, I doubt that these
papers would have used the phrase in this innocuous sense.

JL

On Mon, Dec 20, 2021 at 11:04 AM Ben Zimmer <bgzimmer at gmail.com> wrote:

> The latest OED update includes "the birds and the bees" (s.v. "bird"),
> defined as "the facts about human sexual functions and reproduction,
> especially as told to children. Often humorous, with allusion to the
> inadequate accounts given to young children." Earliest cite given is from
> 1943:
>
> ---
> 1943   Washington Post 17 June 16/1   The Selective Service System appears
> to have acquired only a very elementary, and somewhat garbled,
> understanding of the facts of life. It has learned, evidently about the
> birds and the bees, and the flowers and has been told that the period of
> human gestation is approximately nine months.
> ---
>
> There's also a note: "The evident familiarity of the phrase in the 1940s
> implies earlier use, though only general uses as a picturesque collocation
> seem to be recorded." And Jonathan Dent writes in his post on the update
> that "early uses imply a certain knowing familiarity which suggests that it
> had already been around for a while by that time."
> https://public.oed.com/blog/the-oed-december-2021-update/
>
> In a thread 10 years ago (see below), JL provided a 1939 cite that seemed
> to fit the bill, though it's a bit allusive. This cite from 1936, however,
> explicitly gives the context as sex education.
>
> ---
> https://www.newspapers.com/clip/90871805/birds-and-the-bees/
> Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), Jan. 16, 1936, p. 13, col. 5
> MILWAUKEE -- When your child asks you to explain the mysteries of sex,
> don't put him off with vagaries about the birds and the bees.
> This was the advice today of Dr. Temple Burling, psychiatric director of
> the Winnetka, Ill., public schools, who addressed 200 men and women here to
> attend an institute on sex education of youth conducted by the women's
> court and civic conference.
> "The child is ready for sex education when he asks for it," Dr. Burling
> said. "Parents should answer such questions truthfully and in a natural
> tone and not put the child off with vagaries about the birds and the bees."
> ---
>
> (The same United Press wire story was published on Jan. 16, 1936 by the
> Journal Times of Racine, WI and the Green Bay Press-Gazette.)
>
> --Ben
>
>
> On Wed, Sep 28, 2011 at 1:09 PM Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at gmail.com>
> wrote:
>
> >
> > The following obviously went to George but was meant for all:
> >
> > 1939 _Brainerd [Minn.] Daily Dispatch_ (Feb. 20) 4 [NewspaperArchive]: A
> > Frenchman is born sophisticated. He knows about the birds and the bees.
> >
> > GB's exx. begin in 1942.
> >
> > Earlier exx.of "about the birds and the bees" refer to birds and bees.
> "The
> > flowers" are often added."  The phrase originally referred to a frequent
> > topic of sentimental nature poetry.
> >
> > So the figurative sense alludes, with a kind of cynical humor uncommon
> > before the 1920s or '30s, to the "ways of nature" in general. It does not
> > refer to the sex habits of actual birds and bees, a subject that, in this
> > context, would be of less-than-optimum value to modern pubescents.
> >
> >
> > PS: I suspect that the Nathan quote, found by Garson, may have
> > significantly
> > helped the idiom along, if isn't the actual origin.  _The Smart Set_ was
> a
> > notable sophisticated mag of the period, and the humor behind "about the
> > birds and the bees" is pretty sophisticated.
> >
> > Moreover, GB turns up 432 19th C. exx. of "the birds and the bees,"
> proving
> > that the collocation was already a cliche' by 1900.
> >
> > Relevant, from a forerunner of Dr. Spock. Emma Marwedel (1818-1893) was a
> > pioneer in the U.S. kindergarten movement, so her book was presumably
> > influential. Here's how an 1880s mom should introduce her widdu wun to
> the
> > wonder of plants
> >
> >
> > 1887 Emma Marwedel _Conscious Motherhood_ (Chicago: Interstate) 283:
> > Another resemblance to the human family I will mention. All little
> children
> > have papas and mammas, you know, and so have all flower babies. It is
> true,
> > these vegetable parents usually resemble each other more exactly than
> human
> > papas and mammas do, but sometimes they are even more different from each
> > other in appearance than are your own dear papa and mamma. Sometimes,
> > indeed, the flower papa lives on an entirely separate tree, or bush, from
> > the flower mamma, as in the date-palm and others; but when he does, he is
> > always sending her love messages and gifts by the birds and the bees.
> >
> > George Jean Nathan was born in 1882. Hmmm.......
> >
> > JL
> >
> > On Wed, Sep 28, 2011 at 12:33 PM, Garson O'Toole
> > <adsgarsonotoole at gmail.com>wrote:
> > >
> > > Here is a 1922 citation that sardonically links "the birds, the bees
> > > and the flowers" to learning about sex. Note, this instance of "The
> > > Blue Lagoon" predates Brooke Shields.
> > >
> > > Cite: 1922 July, The Smart Set, Portrait of a Theatrical Season by
> > > George Jean Nathan, Page 133, [Ess Ess Pub. Co.] Smart set Company,
> > > New York. (Google Books full view)
> > > http://books.google.com/books?id=0y0cAAAAIAAJ&q=bees#v=snippet&
> > >
> > > <Begin excerpt>
> > > "The Blue Lagoon," by H. DeVere Stacpoole.--The boy and girl brought
> > > up on the deserted island who learn the secrets of sex from the birds,
> > > the bees and the flowers. In bed at 9:45.
> > > <End excerpt>
> > >
> > > Garson
> > >
> > > On Wed, Sep 28, 2011 at 12:04 PM, George Thompson
> > > <george.thompson at nyu.edu> wrote:
> > > >
> > > > This message got sent by accident, incomplete.
> > > >
> > > > JL has replied off-list with a citation from a newspaper of 1939.
> > > >
> > > > I had made an insincere effort to search the Proquest historical
> > > newspapers
> > > > -- it's not my idea of fun --but saw nothing likely within 50 years
> of
> > > the
> > > > introduction of the concept of pollination (through the 1920s).  JL's
> > > > citation and another I had found but not noted, but from roughly the
> > same
> > > > era, suggest that the trope was well-known by then.
> > > > My notion of this trope is that the little one is invited to remember
> > > seeing
> > > > mommy hen sitting on her eggs (or mommy robin, or mommy pigeon, if
> > > > hen-houses are not part of the kid's experience), well, those eggs
> > > > developed. . . .  And what got those eggs started? well, just as the
> > > little
> > > > bee flies to a flower and gathers up pollen. . . .
> > > > So the bees wouldn't have entered the story before the late 19th C.
> > > >  Colonial parents might have wised up their kids by referring to
> birds,
> > > > though.
> > > >
> > > > The TLS article has a nice story about Noel Coward, who was with a
> > child
> > > > when they saw a pair of dogs copulating.  "What are they doing, Uncle
> > > Noel?"
> > > > (or words to that effect).  Coward explained that the dog in front
> was
> > > blind
> > > > and the other was pushing it to St. Dunstan's.
> > > >
> > > > GAT
> > > >
> > > >
> > > >> On Wed, Sep 28, 2011 at 10:37 AM, George Thompson <
> > > george.thompson at nyu.edu
> > > >> > wrote:
> > > >>>
> > > >>> There is a long essay/review in last week's (I think) TLS on an
> > exhibit
> > > at
> > > >>> a
> > > >>> London Museum on sexual behavior in man and in other animals.  In
> the
> > > >>> course
> > > >>> of the review, the writer alludes to "the birds and the bees" as
> the
> > > >>> parental launching pad for enlightening a child about sex.  Oddly,
> > the
> > > >>> writer has the notion that the bees get into the story because of
> the
> > > >>> sex-life of the swarm -- the single female queen pursued by the
> bunch
> > > of
> > > >>> hrny males, the drones and the worker bees, and so forth.
> > > >>>
> > > >>> I note that the expression is not in the OED.  It does appear from
> > the
> > > OED
> > > >>> that knowledge of the process of pollination reached the
> > > English-speaking
> > > >>> world in 1873, which is liely to be the terminus
> > > >>>
> >
>
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
>


-- 
"If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."

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