Q&A: The origin of ‘mind your own beeswax’

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 taking care of beeswax..

Q: Hi AWC.

A: Um, hi. What are we talking about today?

Q: Mind your own beeswax.

A: Well, sorry, but we think it’s quite relevant.

Q: No, THAT is what I want to talk about. Where does the phrase “mind your own beeswax” come from?

A: Ahhhh, gotcha. Well the meaning is the same as a similar saying – “mind your own business”.

Q: It is, except with 100% more bees and wax added.

A: Quite. Obviously, the concept of “busy-ness” has been around for centuries, originally meaning to be anxious or diligent, before arriving at its modern-day “much occupied or engaged” description by the mid 1300s.

Q: Wait, modern-day it’s more about handshakes and boardrooms, no?

A: We’re still talking about the noun “busyness” – a form of being busy. The word “business” sprang up at the same time to mean your work, livelihood or duties, and both were pronounced the same three-syllable way.

Q: Oh, so not like “let’s get down to bizz-ness”?

A: The more modern two-syllable sound came during the 1600s, along with the word’s link to merchants, trade and commercial activities in general. About this time, it also came to mean a more naughty kind of busy activity.

Q: Speaking of birds and bees, any sign of that wax yet?

A: Not yet, but it was the 1620s that first saw the phrase, “mind your own business” – not meddling into another’s affairs. 

Q: Okay, so that saying is about 400 years old.

A: It is. But the word “beeswax” hadn’t even turned up in English by that point – it would take till the 1670s to be added to the lexicon. However, the concept of bees being “busy workers” had been around since the 1500s.

Q: Oh, I think I remember us discussing working bees – all about being busy, yeah?

A: That’s right – it was back when we were trying to find the origin of “spelling bees”. It was a fun conversation.

Q: It was. So how long before the beeswax phrase turned up?

A: One story says that during the 1800s, women would use beeswax as a kind of foundation to cover up blemishes including smallpox scars. And if someone got too close and noticed it – they’d be told to mind their OWN beeswax by the wearer.

Q: Not a great foundation for a friendship.

A: And not a lot of foundation in truth according to etymologists.

Q: Well what DO they say?

A: During the 1800s, if you were a tedious bore, you were often called a “beeswax” – so some claim that the original phrase added a comma to become: “mind your own, beeswax”.

Q: Oh, so a bit like: “stay out of it, loser”?

A: Haha, yeah, the Victorian-era equivalent! In any case, there is also strong evidence that by the early 1900s, the word “beeswax” had simply become a slang version of “business” – with children often using it to lighten the tone when saying either “mind your own beeswax” or “none of your beeswax”.

Q: When is the earliest printed version?

A: A children’s book apparently included it in 1929 – but the more-widely reported is in Henry Roth’s 1934 novel Call It Sleep – about Jewish immigrants growing up on New York’s Lower East Side. 

Q: And no one knows why “business” became “beeswax”?

A: Not specifically, apart from a similarity in beginnings and length of each word. It seems it was just a humorous way to say business.

Q: Hilarious… Look at my sides splitting open.

A: Hey, be nice. They didn’t have the internet to amuse them back then.

Q: Well thanks for the info. All this reminds me of my friend who recently had a full body waxing treatment done with beeswax. So expensive!

A: Really?

Q: Yep – a total ripoff. Bahahaaaa.

A: …

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