Q&A: Make a beeline vs as the crow flies

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we’re making a beeline to where the crow flies.

Q: Hi AWC, I have a question for you that might create a bit of a buzz.

A: Okay, what is it?

Q: I’d like to know whether I should write ‘beeline’ or ‘bee-line’ or ‘bee line’?

A: Right, buzz, we get it. Cute.

Q: I am of course talking about the phrase “to make a beeline for something”… is there a proper way to write it?

A: Not one particular way – you can write it either as one word or with a hyphen, either is okay – just be consistent.

Q: Fair enough.

A: Macquarie Dictionary lists both variants – describing a beeline as the shortest possible course. It gives the example: “when the meeting finished, we all headed in a beeline for the refreshments”. To ‘make a beeline’ is a specific phrase.

Q: Hmmm, I’ve spent plenty of time sitting in gardens and I wonder where it came from – because bees seem to go in anything but a straight line, meandering from flower to flower…

A: Haha, well remember that idioms are the rockstars of the English language – throwing logic out of hotel windows whenever they get the chance.

Q: True.

A: But there are actually two good explanations in this case. The first is simple enough, relating to the direct course a bee makes back to the hive. And the second picks things up there, when the bee communicates to the other bees (via a waggling dance) the location of that sweet, sweet nectar. Those bees fly straight to it – thus making a ‘beeline’ for it!

Q: Tell me more about this waggling dance the bees do.

A: Maybe some other time.

Q: So how old is this idea of a “beeline” anyway?

A: It appears to be American and was probably in use from the late 18th century – with the first recorded appearance in 1808.

Q: Do you think if you have ‘a bee in your bonnet’ of your car, that it will drive in a straight line?

A: No.

Q: Okay, well is a ‘beeline’ different from saying ‘as the crow flies’?

A: Yes, it’s similar. Someone can go in a beeline or travel as the crow flies, however the latter is also used more when discussing distances. For example – “the two towns are only 10 km apart as the crow flies, but the mountain road is 34 km long”.

Q: Don’t crows fly with a more swooping action? Not really straight lines…

A: Again, it’s an idiom so it really doesn’t care what you think.

Q: Good point.

A: ‘As the crow flies’ made its debut about the same time as beeline – first recorded in 1767 and is likely to have originated in Scotland, where the most direct route is often known as ‘the crow road’.

Q: Thank you for sharing your knowledge of the birds and the bees with me.

A: You’re welcome.

Q: I personally think it should be “as the laser pointer points” and not crows or bees.

A: Very catchy. Maybe workshop it a bit more…

Q: Buzz off.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!


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