When parents engage in the big sex talk with their children, it's likely that more than a few still call it the story of "the birds and the bees." It's a safe, comfortable way to get into a potentially embarrassing discussion, safe enough even for the name of a column in a family newspaper.
But where did the phrase come from, and when did it crystallize among the masses into a euphemism for sex?
"The coupling of the birds and the bees in a phrase has been around for a while," said Ed Finegan, a USC professor of linguistics and law. It appears likely that the phrase as a euphemism for sex was inspired by at least two writers. One being Samuel Coleridge Taylor, whose verses in "Work Without Hope" (composed in 1825) refer to birds and bees separately, according to "The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins," (HarperCollins, 1988).
All nature seems at work . . . The bees are stirring--birds are on the wing . . . and I the while, the sole unbusy thing, not honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.
Poor Sam is feeling left out of the love connection. The verses, said Finegan, are an unmistakable reference to sex. "In the past, when schools touched on such matters at all--sex was usually handled in classes with titles such as 'Hygiene and Health.' " The facts of reproduction were "presented by analogy--telling how birds do it and trusting that youngsters would get the message by indirection," write the Morrises.
Finegan found "birds and bees" used together in a 1644 entry in the "Evelyn Diary." The diary, considered one of the principal literary sources for life and manners in 17th century England, was published about 100 years after the death of its author, John Evelyn. The entry, said Finegan, is a reference to the elaborately decorated interior of St. Peter's in Rome:
That stupendous canopy of Corinthian brasse; it consists of 4 wreath'd columns--incircl'd with vines, on which hang little putti [cherubs], birds and bees.
Interestingly, Finegan speculated, human sexuality is represented by the innocent cherubs coupled with images of birds and bees. The diary was published when romantic poets began writing, and "it might be that that was when 'birds and bees' was picked up by other poets," said Finegan, and crystallized as a euphemism.
At some point, "the birds and the bees" made their way into songs (62 of them to be exact), ushering the phrase securely into popular culture. That's OK by Tamara Kreinin, president of the Sexuality Information and Education Counsel of the United States based in New York, if it gives people who would otherwise go apoplectic on matters of human sexuality a way to talk about it. "There still is a general level of discomfort among parents when talking about sex with their children," she points out.
The birds-and-bees euphemism appears to have made it easier for one person to query Cecil Adams, who writes "The Straight Dope," question-and-answer column, published online and in the Chicago Reader.
"I recently celebrated my 30th birthday, and am in the initial stages of what I hope will be a serious and long-lasting relationship," the questioner explains. "My dilemma is this: I've never been told the story of 'the birds and the bees.' Please give me the straight dope on the origin of the phrase and the details of the act(s) as it (or they) relate to man."
Adams responds: "Don't feel bad. Nobody explained it to me either, and I must say I made quite an impression the first night with the honey and the feathers. The significance of the birds and bees isn't what they do, it's simply that they do it, 'it,' naturally, being a tussle in the tumbleweeds, or wherever it is that the lower orders engage in sex. . . .
"Luckily for the perpetuation of species, there's always been Louie in the schoolyard to explain how things really worked."
Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality.