“Mind your own beeswax” and “it’s none of your beeswax” are common phrases you might hear being shouted by six-year-olds on the school playground. For the uninitiated, they basically mean “mind your own business” or “it’s none of your business,” but some people think it’s more complicated than that.
There is a popular story that says back in the 18th and 19th centuries, women who suffered from disfiguring marks left by small pox used beeswax to smooth out their complexion. One suggested theory is that if someone got too close or was staring too long, a woman would say “mind your own beeswax,” as in, “stop staring at mine.” Another is that the beeswax would start to melt if a woman sat too close to the fire, and their companions would have to tell them to “mind their own beeswax” which was dripping off their chins.
Beeswax has been commonly used in cosmetics for years, most notably in Burt’s Bees products, but this origin story is pure myth. The story started being circulated by a chain e-mail called “Little History Lesson” which made the rounds in 2000.
The first record of “mind your own beeswax” actually appears in 1929 in a children’s book, with additional early records following in 1934 and 1939, quite a few years after women were supposedly slathering wax on their faces and coining popular expressions about it.
Aside from there being no documented cases of beeswax being used as a remedy for pockmarks, there are documented medicines in their place. Pockmarks were considered to be a problem, but instead of wax, women would use brightly coloured patches of cloth and stick them on their faces with adhesive to cover the marks. This sounds a little ridiculous, but it would probably sound pretty odd to someone from the 18th and 19th centuries to hear that people today inject botulinum toxin type-A (a.k.a. Botox) into their faces to improve their look. Another trick they used back then was face powder made from lead flakes, which might have covered up their scars but wasn’t exactly beneficial to their health.
There is no evidence to suggest that “beeswax” is anything more than a funny, and convenient, substitution for “business.” The phrase “mind your own business” has been around for a long time, and is incredibly straightforward: it is a phrase to tell someone to pay attention to their own affairs rather than yours. It’s thought that changing “business” to “beeswax” probably softened the phrase, making it sound a little less harsh.
One etymologist, Mark Forsyth, has noted that the word “beeswax” was slang for “tedious bore” in the 19th century. Therefore, the phrase “mind your own beeswax” might in fact be “mind your own, beeswax.” That is, “nose out, you bore.” However, Forsyth admits that the substitution theory carries a lot of weight too, since the words “business” and “beeswax” sound quite similar.
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- Another popular beeswax theory is that women in the 1800s would sit by the fire making beeswax candles and if they got too close, the wax would begin to melt. As with the others, you’d be hard pressed to find any evidence to back this up—plus, by the mid-1800s, beeswax was starting to be phased out in favour of candles made of animal fat.
- The first cold cream was supposedly invented by Galen, a Greek physician, in the 2nd century A.D. It contained beeswax mixed with olive oil and rosewater
- The same “Little History Lesson” e-mail claimed that beeswax-covered women were also the reason for the phrase “crack a smile.” Once a woman had applied her beeswax, she wouldn’t be able to smile or the wax would crack around her lips. Again, this isn’t true. Crack a smile is related to “crack a joke,” which dates back to the 1300s and is simply a figure of speech. It doesn’t allude to a physical crack in anything, least of all the fictional wax masks of 19th century women.
- Supposedly, the wax dripping off women’s faces also led to the phrase “losing face.” This phrase is actually derived from a Chinese expression about moral character and social prestige that was loosely translated into “lose face” in the 1800s. It has nothing to do with wax.
- Other “bee” phrases include “make a bee-line,” which refers to going somewhere in the quickest and most direct route possible. This one came about from the idea that bees instinctually know where their hives are and when they are going back home, they go by the most direct route. (In fact, bees have an incredibly advanced method of navigation, including using the sun and adjusting for time of day and the curvature of the earth in calculating the angles of direction they should fly to find things.) Another one is “a bee in your bonnet,” which comes from a Scottish translation of Aenid: “hede full of beis.” The phrase means being preoccupied with an idea, and comes from the agitated state someone would be in if they had a bee buzzing around their head.
- Speaking of minding your own beeswax, “Little History Lesson” also brought up “minding your P’s and Q’s,” which isn’t too common a phrase these days. The chain e-mail claimed it had to do with bar maids “minding the pints and quarts” that their customers were drinking. In truth, it isn’t actually known definitively where this expression comes from. Some other theories include telling children to “mind their pleases and thank you’s” while another one says it has to do with children learning the difference between lower case p’s and q’s. An early quotation, from 1602, tells of a “Pee and Kue,” which appears to be a type of clothing. Unfortunately, we may never know exactly how this one came about, but given Little History Lesson’s track record, it would be a shocker if they actually got one right.
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