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!
Q: Yep – a total ripoff. Bahahaaaa.
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