A Bee in My Bonnet or Idioms in Fiction

Reading the first draft of my new novel The Ark, my friend Robyn brought my attention to my frequent use of idiom. In everyday speech, most people use idioms regularly, but in fiction they are generally considered lazy; isn’t part of a writer’s task is to say old things in new ways?

Editing my manuscript I had to consider each one carefully. Was I using an idiom because I believed a character would use it, or was I shirking my writerly duties? Consider this email, for example, from a character living amidst the chaos of the collapsing post-peak oil society, to her sister, who is living inside the bunker known as the Ark:

Even out here people are terribly out of sorts about VISO [TV broadcasting] going down. But it must be particularly difficult for you, losing that sense of connectedness. I had started to take a leaf out of your book and was watching it less and less, because it was just so bleak. So I am trying to view it as a blessing in disguise. Ignorance is bliss, isn’t that what they say?

Three idioms in two sentences? Verdict: slack!

Because my book is set in the future (2041), Robyn’s observation raised another question. Would a character born after the turn of the millennium be likely to use the phrase a bee in her bonnet? Would they even know what a bonnet was? And does it matter? Can you be confident in the true meaning of an idiom, without understanding its etymology?


To me, the image of a bee trapped inside a hat, getting more and more frantic as it finds itself unable to escape, is the perfect metaphor for an idea that you’re obsessed with, to the point of agitation. However, a little googling revealed a variety of interpretations for this seemingly straightforward idiom, including the idea that it referred to feeling angry or upset, as you might after discovering a bee in your bonnet.

The blog ‘How to slay a cliché’  suggests the following alternatives:

  • bee in her bouffant
  • squirrel in her skirt
  • rats inthe trash can 

See a lot of bouffants around your neck of the woods? Me neither. A trash can? In Australia we have wheelie bins and it would take a super-rat to scale their slippery sides, so that one doesn’t quite work either. I did once have a squirrel run up my leg, apparently mistaking me for a tree, but it wasn’t exactly what you’d call a rite of passage – and anyway I was wearing jeans. I don’t know that this particular cliché has been ‘slayed’ – ‘butchered’ would perhaps be more accurate.

Elsewhere, I stumbled across the somewhat less prosaic something’s crawled up his ass. Hmmm. Maybe not. So in the absence of any decent alternative, should I keep a bee in her bonnet, despite it being anachronistic?

My answer to this question came as I considered another idiom – to draw a long bow which means someone has drawn conclusions which may not be supported by the evidence at hand.This is, of course, an archery term, which to me suggests aiming at something which is too far away to hit. Outside of Middle Earth, longbows went out when gunpowder came in but several hundred years later we’re still using this expression. So I think a bee in my bonnet can survive another thirty years.

To cut a long story short, what it boils down to, at the end of the day, is that when it comes to the idiom it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie. No use in upsetting the applecart, after all, better the devil you know.

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A Bee in My Bonnet or Idioms in Fiction   ANNABEL SMITH

4 thoughts on “A Bee in My Bonnet or Idioms in Fiction”

  1. I think idioms are fascinating and also they are a thermometer of how good you know a language. In my website, I make an effort to find corresponding Enlish idioms in Brazilian Portuguese. Somehow I bumped into your article which I enjoyed a lot. Very good job!

    1. I think you’re right – idioms are often the parts of learning a new language where you can get extremely confused because they’re often related to cultural context. I remember trying to explain the English phrase ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ to a Balinese taxi drive, without much success! Glad you enjoyed reading it.

  2. We Brazilian are very acquainted with “The grass is always greener on the other side” because here we use this very similar one in Portuguese: “A grama do vizinho sempre é mais verde”, i.e. “The neighbor’s grass is always greener”. Another one very usual here too, referring to fact that someone thinks “the other side” is better is “O João pulou a cerca.” i.e. “John has jumped the fence” meaning that John has cheated his wife or has been unfaithful. This idiom refers to what some animals (like sheep, goats, etc.) do. Sometimes they jump the fence to breed with animals outside their flock.

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