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

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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