Query: "birds and bees"

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Thu Feb 16 01:51:07 UTC 2006

On 2/15/06, Cohen, Gerald Leonard <gcohen at umr.edu> wrote:
> Today in my Etymology class a student asked me about the rationale for
> the expression "the birds and the bees."  I mentioned that it's a euphemism for
> "sex/reproduction," but is there anything else to add?  When did the expression
> first appear, and why specifically where the birds and bees selected?  Why not,
> for example, rabbits and lizards? Or chipmunks?

There was an alt.usage.english thread about this a few years ago...


At the time I found exx of "the birds and the bees" as a euphemism for
sex back to 1938 on Proquest. References to the reproductive habits of
birds and bees, however, go back much earlier than that. Cecil Adams
cites the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, suggesting
that Coleridge's "Work Without Hope" (1825) was a possible

        Where exactly "the birds and the bees" originated nobody
        knows, but word sleuths William and Mary Morris hint that
        it may have been inspired by words like these from the poet
        Samuel Coleridge: "All nature seems at work ... The bees
        are stirring--birds are on the wing ... and I the while,
        the sole unbusy thing, not honey make, nor pair, nor build,
        nor sing." Making honey, pairing ... yes, we can definitely
        tell what Sam had on his mind.


--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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